Science Briefs

Perspective Taking, Diversity and Partnerships

Envisioning the various ways the field of psychology might have evolved under various forms of restrictions is sobering, because it underlines the problems of insights lost by virtue of a lack of diversity.

By Douglas Medin, PhD, and Megan Bang, PhD

What would the field of psychology look like if its beginnings had been in China? Psychology may be the least international of all the social sciences and it certainly is more parochial than any of the natural sciences. Therefore, there is plenty of reason to think that a different point of origin would have led to a different current state of the art.

Once one starts along this line of thought, it is easy to generate variations. To what extent do our current understandings of our field depend on the gender, ethnicity, SES, political leanings and cultural identification of the scientists who are conducting psychological research? For example, what if the field of psychology had been considered as the sole domain of women? Would our theories and empirical generalizations look much different? There is reason to think that they would (see Eagly, 2005, for an example from research on leadership). Or suppose that the field of psychology was not dominated by liberals but rather reflected a broad political spectrum. In this case, chances are we would have a broader view of moral concepts, one that would generalize more readily to other cultures (Shweder et al, 1997; Haidt, 2008).

Envisioning the various ways the field might have evolved under various forms of restrictions is sobering, because it underlines the problems of insights lost by virtue of a lack of diversity. Social scientists have even constructed proofs that diversity trumps ability in problem-solving (Hong & Page, 2004). Note that the costs of limited perspectives not only fall on the field of psychology per se, but also may be devastating for the populations affected by the research (e.g., immigrants, women, people of color, etc), especially when biased assessments hold the authority of science.

For present purposes we will focus on cultural research and the issues associated with the observation that it still is predominately conducted from an American perspective. There are two kinds of problems with this asymmetry. One concerns the cognitive consequences of what can be called psychological distance. Psychological distance refers to how subjectively (psychologically) close or remote from an event a person is across a range of measures of distance, including time, space, and personal identity (Trope and Liberman, 2003). The other kind of problem is that, although cultural comparisons should be inherently symmetrical, almost all cultural studies start in the West and then are transported elsewhere.

Psychological Distance

There is extensive work in social psychology suggesting that greater psychological distance and power differentials bias people toward making dispositional rather than situational attributions (Fiske, 1993; Trope & Liberman, 2003). Galinsky, Magee, Ena Inesi, and Gruenfeld (2006) have experimentally manipulated power and found that a position of power is associated with a diminished capacity to take other people's perspective and comprehend how they think and feel.

Here's a concrete example. Louis Gomez and the first author recently taught a class where one of the readings concerned negotiations over an Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. At one point several of the students suggested that what we really need to know is the set of beliefs that all Muslims share. We then asked the students what that list would look like for Christians, only to be told that Christians are simply too diverse in their beliefs for one to make meaningful generalizations. To the students' credit, they quickly appreciated the inconsistency of their intuitions and backed away from wanting to know "what Muslims think."

Out-group homogeneity can also influence what one takes to be the relevant unit of analysis in cultural studies. For example, First Nations peoples in Canada have a suicide rate much above the national average. One might imagine that it would be natural to design intervention programs aimed at reducing suicides in Indigenous Canadian communities. However, Chandler & Lalonde (1998) took individual bands within British Columbia as the relevant unit of analysis and observed that a number of bands had suicide rates much below the national average. Further analysis revealed that suicide rates were powerfully and negatively correlated with the efforts of the various bands to preserve their own language and culture and to maintain or establish sovereignty. These findings reveal the limitations of nationwide, "one size fits all" intervention programs and underline the importance of sovereignty to mental health.

Perspective Taking

One way to overcome psychological distance is to (try to) take the perspective of the other. This in itself may not be easy. Temple Grandin, who argues that her autism helps her take the perspective of animals, provides a telling example in her book with Catherine Johnson (2005). The story comes from ethologist Ron Kilgour. A person had a pet lion that he was shipping on an airplane. Someone suggested that providing a pillow would ease the stress of the trip. They gave the lion a pillow, and he ate it and died. Temple Grandin read the story and said to herself, "Well, no, he doesn't want a pillow, he wants something soft to lie on, like leaves and grass." The trick is to think like a lion, not a person.

The Itza' Maya of Guatemala have evolved a belief system that promotes perspective taking with respect to the rain forest. They see the forest as inhabited by spirits (the Arux) who are sometimes visible and who drink from the water vine (bejuco de agua) and enjoy the flavor of the food they obtain from the allspice tree (pimienta gorda). When we ask Itza' elders to rank order 21 species of plants from the point of view of the Arux, the best predictor of their rankings is ecological centrality (Atran and Medin, 2008). In short, they see the Arux as guardians of the forest. Other groups in the area also believe in the forest spirits but don't see them as relevant to the forest per se. Their agro-forestry practices are much more destructive than those of the Itza' (Atran, Medin, Vapnarsky, Ucan Ek', Coley, Timura, and Baran, 2002).

Perspective taking is also relevant to inter-group conflict. In studies our research group has conducted with Native-American (Menominee) and European-American hunters and fishermen we found that the European-American sportsmen had strong, negative stereotypes concerning Menominee hunting and fishing practices (Medin, Ross, and Cox, 2006). But we also found that stereotyping diminished dramatically or disappeared altogether among sportsmen whose perspective on nature was similar to that of our Menominee sample.

Perspective Taking and Partnerships

So far we've suggested that one should do one's best to take multiple perspectives in cultural research and that, at the same time, it may be difficult to do so. One solution is to seek research partnerships from within the cultural groups being studied. In our studies of agro-forestry in Peten, Guatemala, there were no obvious academic counter-parts but there were plenty of indigenous biological experts. We never conducted an interview or ran a task without first consulting with local Maya elders. They were interested in what we were doing and we benefited immensely from their efforts to help us understand the data we collected.

We have been able to establish research partnerships with Native-American institutions for the work conducted on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin and in Chicago over the past decade. For example, our grants have involved Northwestern University, the American Indian Center (AIC) of Chicago and a tribal college on the Menominee reservation. It is to the credit of the National Science Foundation that these partnerships do not involve subcontracts from Northwestern University to tribal institutions but rather parallel budgets with a Principal Investigator at each site.

One byproduct of research partnerships is that they reduce the asymmetries in cultural research and they provide multiple perspectives. Having our research approved by Northwestern's Institutional Review Board is only one of several steps. AIC community members and the Menominee Language and Culture Commission must also approve our research and they have an opportunity to bring their values to bear on the project.

The design of our studies is based on an understanding of appropriate research methods for working with American Indian communities. There is a long history of research in Indian communities that has often not been in their best interest, a legacy that has made many Native communities suspicious of research. Over the years indigenous researchers themselves have worked to develop appropriate research methods and criteria (Hermes, 1999, Smith, 1999, Mihesuah, 1998, Guyette, 1983). There are some general lessons that have emerged. First, there is a consensus that participatory action research (PAR) is the best framework of inquiry. PAR has generally been defined as an integrated approach that relies on the participation of community members to investigate the issues at hand (Hermes, 1999). PAR includes the following: elder input, use of traditional language, community participation in research agenda, staff selection, and budget, community payoff, respect of cultural values, and informed consent (Hermes, 1999, Hudson & Taylor-Henley, 2001). These values make sense for any community.

One example of benefits from this research partnership comes from the first author. When he began doing work with Menominee participants it seemed perfectly fine for students to complete their dissertations by paying participants generously, seeking appropriate tribal approvals and employing Menominee research participants whenever possible. Now it doesn't seem so fine. Spending a few thousand dollars on participants seems a pretty modest cost relative to the value of a PhD. It's also clear that tribes or inter-tribal communities such as the American Indian Center have a great need for indigenous scholars who can apply for grants, build research infra-structure, and bring relevant expertise to bear on policy issues. One of the most promising aspects of our research partnership is that it does appear to be facilitating Native scholars' seeking advanced degrees.

The second author has benefited from these partnerships in a different sense. She has gained access to the norms and expectations of powerful research institutions like Northwestern University. This has proven useful to her resilient navigation of the academic system and afforded her the opportunity to support other Native students' navigation of these systems. Further, these research partnerships have created new policies and procedures in doctoral work. For example, the second author's dissertation committee included two tribal community members, thereby raising the academic accountability of graduate students to community and recognizing the role of community members in shaping the doctoral work of graduate students. This placement also recognizes that expertise within particular communities is not necessarily reflected by educational attainment status.

You Don't Have to Start Somewhere

The geographically parochial development of the field of psychology poses several serious hazards when it comes to cultural research. First, it makes results from the USA normal or unmarked and differing findings from other cultures "exotic," if not deficient. Barbara Rogoff's (2003) book documents how atypical and strange many USA middle class child rearing practices are (e.g., when an infant is supposed to sleep alone) relative to those of the rest of the world. This markedness may also affect how questions are framed ("Why aren't they like us?" versus "Why aren't we like them?"). For example, if we are testing some phenomenon that is well established with USA undergraduates in another cultural context, it is hard to avoid greeting differing results by wondering why the other cultural groups "fails to show" the phenomenon in question. But had we started in the other context the shoe would be on the other foot.

Yet another hazard derives from selection processes that are a natural part of research. Here's a silly example (no pun intended). Suppose we study "sense of humor" and develop a set of jokes in the USA and then (after proper translation) test them in another culture. We could be quite sure that people in the other culture would not find them as funny as people in our home culture. But no reasonable person would want to conclude that people in the other culture had a worse sense of humor. We recognize that jokes have been selected for funniness and that this is determined by knowledge, values and other individual and cultural considerations.

But what holds for jokes also applies to any assessment tool when it is selected and developed in one culture and applied to another. We use experimental stimuli that other people have been effectively using (with a specific US sample), or generate experimental stimuli or methodological intuitions already well honed within our own cultural group. If we then translate and transport these stimuli and methods for a cross-cultural comparison, we will be using biased methods and procedures.

It is common to say that one has to start somewhere, implying that a single locus is a logical necessity. One person can't be two places at once but a research team can. Further, by virtue of research partnerships and self-consciously developing research tools and methods simultaneously in multiple contexts, one can go a long ways towards limiting the asymmetries that seem endemic to psychology.


A final piece of advice is to substitute "perspective taking" for efforts to be "objective." An explicit recognition of the asymmetrical development of our field and the benefits of seeking new research partnerships may simultaneously help us to address the inequities and biases that permeate the field and promote a deeper, more rigorous understanding of the diversity of human behavior.


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About the Authors

Douglas Medin's primary interests are in Culture, Cognition and Learning, Computational Models of Cognition, Concept and Classification Learning and Decision Making. He holds the Louis L. Menk Chair of Psychology, is a Member of the 2005 class of the American Academy of Sciences, and the 2002 class of the AAAS. He received the APA Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award in 2005 for his major role in the development of the context model and theory-based approaches to category formation. His current work explores the differences between Native American and European-American conceptions of nature and traces their implications for science learning and instruction.

Megan Bang, PhD, is currently a Project Leader at TERC (Cambridge, MA) and Director of Education at the American Indian Center of Chicago. Dr. Bang's work explores the relationships between culture and science learning specifically with Native American students. Her program of work includes foundational cognitive studies coupled with community based design experiments that mobilize the intellectual resources that Native children develop in their everyday lives to enhance school learning. Dr. Bang is developing a model of learning environments to support students' generative navigation between and through multiple ways of knowing, an approach she feels is critical to Native students sustained participation in STEM fields. Dr. Bang's work builds Native communities capacity to conduct research by providing research experience to up and coming Native scholars.