Chapter 1: Introduction to Biological Psychology
While biological psychology is diverse in the approaches to study the brain, historically the people involved in the research have not been especially diverse. Most of the early research was done by men of European descent due to social and cultural factors, systemic barriers, as well as unconscious biases. The field has been getting more diverse in the last decades and many leading labs are headed by women and historically underrepresented minorities. Diversity both across and within labs contributes to better quality science. If everyone has the same background and viewpoint, innovation lags because novel ideas are generated less often and new ideas may be derided and viewed as dissenting. Unique perspectives advance science, and research shows that more diverse groups outperform less diverse groups in many settings (Page, 2008). Diversity in science can be increased with policies and programs that address bias, harassment, mentorship, work-life balance, and educational and training opportunities, so that all have equal opportunity to succeed (Greider et al., 2019; National Academies of Sciences, Engineers, and Medicine, 2023).
Another area lacking diversity in biological psychology is in the research subjects. The vast majority of research subjects in psychology studies (96% by one estimate) are from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (“WEIRD”) societies. These WEIRD subjects represent a very narrow slice of humankind, and research findings from them don’t necessarily generalize to other populations or serve the goal of understanding human psychology (Henrich et al., 2008).
Likewise, most participants in mental health studies, such as those looking at genetic risk in psychiatric disorders, have been of European ancestry; thus it is unclear how those studies will benefit people of differing ethnicities who might have different mental health needs and respond differently to treatments (Gordon, 2018). Research on diverse populations is especially important considering the long-standing disparities in mental health care–individuals from racial and ethnic minority groups, those with lower socioeconomic status, and residents of rural areas, are more likely to receive lower quality mental health care (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2016). Funding agencies, including the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), are increasingly paying attention to the importance of including people from diverse backgrounds when developing funding mechanisms and reviewing grant proposals, which ultimately shapes the direction of the science.
In sum, the field of biological psychology benefits from researchers and participants with different backgrounds to enrich the quality and creativity of the science, and make the findings and field more relevant and applicable for all.