Issues & Debates

Gender Bias

Bias in psychological research in theories refers to the effects that the psychologist’s own background and values may have on a theory or outcome of a study. Bias undermines the claim of psychological research and theories to be applicable to every human (this applicability is known as universality).

Gender bias: This can occur in two ways. Alpha bias is where the difference between males and females are exaggerated or over-emphasised. For example, men and women may respond differently in situations involving aggression. According to evolutionary theory, males are more likely to be physically aggressive, in order to ward off threats to status and rivals. Females are more likely to be non-physically aggressive, as this is less risky to their survival, meaning they are more likely to successfully raise offspring. Therefore, males and females who do not act in these ways may be going against their ‘nature’ somehow.

Beta bias is where differences between males and females are minimised or ignored; a theory or findings from research are thought to apply in exactly the same way to both genders. This occurs even if only one gender has been used in research. This means any potential differences between the genders is not considered. For example, Asch found relatively high rates of conformity in his line-length study, but when females have been tested in similar ways, even higher rates of conformity have been found.

Androcentrism: A male-centred standpoint. This means that research is conducted mostly by males, using male participants, meaning that the male experience is set as the ‘normal’ standard of behaviour, and that if females show different behaviours they may be judged as abnormal.

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  • Gender bias creates and reinforces negative stereotypes, often around female behaviour, and could be used to justify unfair treatment of the sexes (for example, arguing that women should prioritise the domestic role over a career as they are more ‘naturally suited’ to it).
  • There are many more male than female researchers at a senior scientific level, meaning the concerns of women are less likely to be addressed.
  • Many gender differences reported in research is rooted in an ‘essentialist’ perspective- the idea that there are fixed, unchanging differences between the genders. This perspective is perhaps outdated, but is often used as ‘fact’.

Cultural Bias

This is when research and theories conducted developed in one culture are applied, perhaps inappropriately, to another. In Psychology, most of the research and practising psychologists are Western-based, for example the USA and Western Europe. This causes bias in that one cultural background is dominant, reducing the extent to which theories can be said to be universal. For example, research into conformity has shown quite different results when conducted in non-Western cultures, as has research into attachment behaviour.

Ethnocentrism: The belief that one culture is inherently superior or ‘better’ than others. This manifests as behaviours not matching the Western norms being seen as deviant or inferior. For example, in the Strange Situation, infants who were securely attached were seen as ‘happiest’, this being seen as the ‘best’ attachment type. This does not consider how childcare practices differ in other cultures.

Cultural relativism: Research which is developed in one culture and inappropriately applied to another is an example of the imposed etic (assuming that one way of doing things can be applied to everywhere). Etic approaches look at behaviours from outside of a culture, trying to apply universal laws, whereas emic approaches study cultures from within, looking at what behaviours are specific to a culture. Berry suggested that psychological theories should be considered to be culturally relative- they were developed in one (usually) Western culture, and therefore they reflect the norms and values of that culture.

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  • Takano and Osaka (1999), analysing 15 studies comparing an individualist culture (valuing independence and the individual over the group) and a collectivist culture (valuing group activity, interdependence, and the collective interest over the individual) found no evidence of difference in behaviour in 14 of them, suggesting cultural differences may not be as big a factor in research as previously thought.
  • Some psychological research has found examples of universal behaviours, for example facial expressions and interactional synchrony in attachment, suggesting that not all research findings are culturally relative.
  • Demand characteristics may be more of a problem when undertaking cross-cultural research, as the participants may be less familiar with the scientific method. Therefore, the findings of such studies are less likely to be valid due to cultural bias.

Free Will vs Determinism

Free-will: Recognises cause and effect in behaviour and the influence of factors such as the environment, but argues that we ourselves direct our behaviour through our will so that we make choices and our behaviour is voluntary. Humanistic psychologists support this perspective.

Determinism: The belief that cause and effect rule the day. Our behaviour is determined by our previous experience, our genetic makeup and the environment, and we don’t really choose our actions. The extent to which behaviour is determined can be expressed in two ways:

  • Hard determinism is the theory that human behaviour and actions are wholly determined by internal or external factors, and therefore humans do not have genuine free will or ethical accountability. Behaviourists support this perspective.
  • Soft determinism is the theory that there are constraints on our behaviour but within these limitations we are free to make some choices. Cognitive psychologists support this perspective.

Types of Determinism

  • Biological: the influence of genes, hormones, neurotransmitters cause behaviour. For example, someone is aggressive because they have an excess of testosterone in their body, which has been genetically determined (their father may also have been aggressive).
  • __Environmental: __behaviour is shaped by learning- being rewarded and punished for certain behaviours, associating stimuli with response, and so on. For example, someone has a phobia of dogs because they were knocked over by a dog as a child, and have avoided dogs ever since, never un-learning the association.
  • Psychic: behaviour is shaped by unconscious conflicts and forces we are not aware of, so even if our decisions seem like they are due to free will, this is just an illusion.

Emphasis on causal explanations: To establish the influences on behaviour, psychologists attempt to use the scientific method, by controlling all extraneous and confounding variables as far as possible to ascertain that the IV has affected the DV (result).


  • Determinism lends itself to using the scientific method, increasing the credibility of Psychology and allowing predictions to be tested. As a result, treatments for conditions such as schizophrenia have been successfully developed.
  • The deterministic approach has implications for criminal responsibility, suggesting that offenders can’t be blamed for their crimes. This is unacceptable to most people, and does not reflect how the legal system operates.
  • Free will has face validity, meaning that, on the face of it, it seems like an accurate concept. Even thinking we have free will may have a positive impact on behaviour.
  • Soon et al (2008) found that the brain is active even before being consciously aware of making a decision, suggesting that free will may actually not exist.

Nature vs Nurture

Nature: Behaviour is shaped by innate characteristics which may be present at birth. The biological approach strongly supports the role of nature in affecting behaviour. Innate characteristics may be due to genetic inheritance.

Nurture: Behaviour is shaped by the environment, for example the circumstances of upbringing and learning. At the extreme of this view, people are born as ‘blank slates’, with no innate characteristics. Behaviourists support the role of nurture.

Relative importance: It is impossible to know how much influence nature and nurture separately have, as it is not possible to raise a child without nurturing them. High concordance rates in twin studies may be due to their shared genes, but it may be due to their similar upbringing. Therefore, ascertaining the relative influence of nature and nurture is a more useful way of considering the debate.

  • Interactionist approach: Nature and nurture interact to influence behaviour, for example in reciprocal attachments between babies and caregivers.
  • Diathesis-stress: A vulnerability to a behaviour such as a mental disorder is combined with a trigger to cause it to develop. Vulnerabilities and stress triggers could be biological or environmental.
  • Epigenetics: Interactions with the environment causes change in genetic activity, therefore affecting the genes which are passed on to offspring. Dias and Ressler (2014) found that giving rats electric shocks after presenting them with a chemical smell conditioned a fear of the smell in the rats, but this fear was also present in their offspring (despite the fact that the offspring had not been shocked).Issues & Debates, figure 1


  • Taking the nature, or nurture side of the argument could have negative consequences, for example suggesting that ‘biology is destiny’ could be used to justify different treatment of certain groups. Suggesting that behaviour is shaped by the environment may lead to attempts to control behaviour by environmental manipulation.
  • It is too difficult to investigate the effects of nature and nurture due to the fact they are so closely linked (for example, twin pairs sharing genes and environments).
  • Constructivism suggests that a person’s biology may influence them to choose their environment, which then further influences them (for example, choosing to spend time with certain people or watch certain media). It therefore becomes too difficult to decide the influences of nature and nurture.

Holism vs Reductionism

Holism: The idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so it only makes sense to study the whole person, and all of the possible influences on them, in Psychology. Humanistic psychologists support this perspective.

  • Biological: Biological structures and processes can, ultimately, be the explanation for all behaviours. For example, certain symptoms of schizophrenia are due to an excess of dopamine levels in a certain part of the brain.
  • Environmental: Simple stimulus-response learning can explain behaviour. This is supported by behaviourists and was demonstrated in experiments such as Pavlov’s dogs.

Reductionism: The idea that it is possible to understand behaviour by breaking it down into its constituent components, using the lowest possible ‘level of explanation’. Levels of explanation differ in complexity, looking at the psychological level of understanding a mental disorder (considering behaviours and the experiences of them in the person), down to a biological level (levels of neurotransmitters in the brain). There are different types of reductionism:

  • Biological: Biological structures and processes can, ultimately, be the explanation for all behaviours. For example, certain symptoms of schizophrenia are due to an excess of dopamine levels in a certain part of the brain.
  • Environmental: Simple stimulus-response learning can explain behaviour. This is supported by behaviourists and was demonstrated in experiments such as Pavlov’s dogs.

Reductionism does not just mean ‘ignoring other influences on behaviour’. It means that the theory/idea being offered is at a simplistic level of explanation.

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  • Holistic explanations provide a more realistic account of human behaviour, for example in social situations such as conformity to roles.
  • Holistic explanations are hard to test scientifically, so it is hard to know how accurate they are. Creating treatments for disorders also becomes much more difficult, as no one cause of the disorder can be identified.
  • Reductionism is helpful to use as it lends itself to scientific testing, leading to theories and predictions which can be falsified, increasing the credibility of Psychology
  • Reductionism oversimplifies complex behaviours and disorders, meaning that many levels of explanation may be lost. Just focusing on the levels of neurotransmitters in a person’s brain overlooks possible environmental causes such as negative home environments, for example.

Exam Question

8 marks calls for 1 paragraph outlining the theory and 1-2 evaluation points.

Outline and evaluate reductionist explanations in psychology.
Your answer should include: Constituent / Parts

Idiographic & Nomothetic Approaches

The idiographic approach: Involves focusing more on the individual case as a means of understanding behaviour, rather than aiming to formulate general laws of behaviour. Case studies and unstructured interviews with open questions are often used. Humanistic psychologists support using this method, to uncover all of the possible influences on one individual’s behaviour (their unique experience). The psychodynamic approach also looks at the experience of individuals, although Freud also said that factors such as the unconscious are true for everyone.

The nomothetic approach: Involves formulating general laws of behaviour, rather than focusing on individual cases. Experiments, structured observations and interviews involving large groups of peoples are used to establish theories which can be applied to everyone. Reductionist approaches such as the biological and behavioural approaches favour this method, as do cognitive approaches. The scientific method is favoured- a hypothesis is formulated, then tested on a group of people. The results are then used to modify theories applying to all.


  • The idiographic approach allows for a comprehensive, in-depth look at one individual, allowing for a full explanation of their behaviour. This may help to challenge and modify general laws of the idiographic approach.
  • Methods used by the idiographic approach are less scientifically rigorous, so may be less valid. The approach may be less useful as no general theories or predictions are made.
  • The nomothetic approach uses scientific, controlled and standardised methods of investigation, increasing the credibility of the findings, and general norms of behaviours can be identified (for example, the average IQ of the human population).
  • The nomothetic approach is less human-focused, as people are treated as statistics/sets of scores, rather than individuals who have a range of influences on them. It perhaps does not reflect the complexity of the human experience.

Exam Question

A psychologist used an idiographic approach to study aggressive behaviours. He asked participants who had been convicted of crimes involving aggressive behaviours to spend one month recording their thoughts in a diary about their childhood and their behaviour. Qualitative analysis of the diaries showed that the participants often thought about upsetting or traumatic childhood events and believed that these influenced their aggressive behaviour.

It’s 6 marks, so make sure you write 2-3 paragraphs!

Findings from idiographic research like this study are often used as a basis for other investigations. Explain how the researcher might develop the above investigation through taking a nomothetic approach.
Your answer should include: Larger / Sample / Data / Quantitative / Qualitative / Validity

Ethical Implications of Research Studies & Theory

Psychological research can have ethical implications. This refers to consequences of the findings of a study in terms of public perceptions, how a study’s findings are represented in the media, government policy, and treatments of certain groups of people.

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Socially sensitive research: This refers to research into an area which may be controversial or sensitive. For example, investigating ethnic differences in intelligence or the possible role of genetics in aggressive behaviour may have far-reaching consequences for the groups being studied. If research finds that there is a gene for violent crime, for instance, this may justify genetic testing of people, and even separating them from society before they have actually committed a crime. Although these areas are sensitive, it could be argued to be part of the duty of psychologists to carry it out.

Ethical issues in socially sensitive research: These have been identified by Sieber and Stanley (1988), and should be kept in mind when conducting socially sensitive research:

  • Implications: the possible consequences of research findings, for example, if they could be used to justify prejudice and discrimination
  • Public policy: consider what the research findings may be used for, for example could the government use the findings for any reason?
  • __Validity of research: __be aware of personal values and possible biases. Many researchers who undertake socially sensitive research will consider these issues when reporting their findings (being ‘reflexive’)


  • Undertaking socially sensitive research has benefits, for example enhancing the understanding of the experiences of minority groups, or more general benefits (e.g. uncovering the lack of accuracy of eyewitness testimony).
  • Researching minority groups may bring similar problems to that of cross-cultural studies, for example, the researcher’s own world view becomes ‘the norm’ and the minority group’s experiences are seen as ‘inferior/deviant’.
  • Once research is published, the effects can be long-lasting, even if it is then discredited. For example, the psychologist Cyril Burt published findings suggesting that intelligence is inherited, leading to the separation of children based on their ability once they had completed an intelligence test at age 11 (the ’11+’, which decided if a child went to a grammar school or not). Burt’s findings were later found to have been based on invented data, but the test remained in place for a long time afterwards, and the idea that there is a ‘natural’ level of intelligence still remains amongst many people. This shows the potential consequences of socially sensitive research.

Exam Question

Finishing off with an easy 3 marker, that’s just one paragraph.

Outline one ethical implication of psychological research.
Your answer should include: Socially / Sensitive / Perceptions / Policy / Media / Minority