Psychology, Science

People are frequently surprised when I refer to psychology as science. This surprise reveals some common misconceptions about what “science” and “psychology” mean. I am piecing together this post out of snippets of two old rants in order to address those misconceptions for future reference.

In a recent essay which is very pertinent to this topic, I wrote:

“science” refers to a particular way of arriving at conclusions—the application of the scientific method to testable phenomena. It is not limited to particular academic disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics), but it specifically excludes claims which merely adopt the label of “science.”

The speed of light in a vacuum was determined through documented scientific experimentation. So was the molar mass of hydrogen. Psychology uses the same basic methods. The ideas studied in psychology are much harder to pinpoint and the science has not advanced to the same stage of precision as physics and chemistry, but it is science by any complete definition of the word.

Even theories like the theory of gravity, which seem easy to test experimentally, have their parts which are more complicated to test. How do we know that it is something inherent to the mass of an object which causes its attraction to other objects? Before humans went into space, all gravitational fields that we could measure with our hands and eyes were basically swamped by the huge gravitational field of the earth. But there was still very good evidence to support the basic theory, in the form of experiments on earth as well as direct observations of the movements of celestial bodies.

Psychopathology has historically been one of the branches of psychology more likely to diverge from science into arbitrary theorizing. But psychopathology is not a representation of psychology as a whole, nor should those individual reports in psychopathology which fail at science be taken for more than they are. There exist better ones which use more rigorous methods for gathering data and drawing conclusions.

The assumption that psychology is not science derives from a broad (and meaningless) image of science as “that which involves test tubes and chemicals.” This image gives disproportionate credibility to scientists who happen to have used a chemical in an experiment. For example, social psych experiments which test for cortisol in saliva might be seen as more “scientific” than other experiments even if the cortisol measurements don’t provide any useful data. Judging “science” based on whether it sounds like one of the “big three” (biology, chemistry, physics) is arbitrary and limiting.

When many people hear the word “psychology,” they think “Freud.” Freud was not a scientist. He was a storyteller. He also has zero credibility in modern psychology, except for a in few subsets of psychoanalysis, which shouldn’t even be called “psychology,” since they don’t really “study” the mind, they intuit about it, as Freud himself did.

Psychology encompasses the study of many patterns of human thought and behavior outside of pathology, and such study meets every definition of science that things like neuroscience and biology meet, even if it does not involve directly observing neural responses. For example, cognitive researchers have conducted experiments on the conditions under which people’s memories perform better. Memory outcomes can be tested without fMRI or PET scans. In fact, behavioral measures of memory are currently better than vague attempts to pinpoint memory structures in the brain itself. Another example: I have been involved in several experiments involving response latency measures of racial stereotypes. Manipulations involving exposure to race-related primes can affect the speed at which people are able to categorize subsequent stimuli. We arrive at these conclusions by conducting controlled experiments on large numbers of people and measuring their results—exactly the same scientific methods used by neurobiology researchers who examine differences in fMR images based on exposure to similar primes, or pain, or social rejection, or whatever else.


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29 Responses to “Psychology, Science”

  1. Alec Lee Says:

    I think major objection to psychology as a science – an objection you do not address – is that many psychology experiments lack positive and negative controls. Any legitimate science experiment has, as you mentioned, testable hypotheses, independent and dependent variables, a conclusion, etc. But the major difficulty (maybe or maybe not irreconcilable) is developing true, good controls for the experiments. For example, in the fMRI experiment you cite (which, to your argument’s credit, I have not read), it seems clear what the negative control would be: remove the condition. But what is the positive control? Find someone with ‘better’ memory? That can’t *really* be considered a positive control because there are too many variables that have not been accounted for.

    Ultimately it’s difficult to make a genuine critique of your argument because I think you did a poor job of defining what psychology *is*. You say it is “Psychology encompasses the study of many patterns of human thought and behavior outside of pathology,” but really, that is like saying “Physics encompasses the study of the patterns of the physical universe,” and proceeding to give diffraction as an example. These definitions are vague and don’t really express the substance of their study.

    Two mitigating arguments to my objection are
    1. Psychology may have not yet reached the level of complexity to accurately test hypotheses. However, simply because the methods have not yet been developed does not mean they never will nor does it mean our current methods do not constitute science.
    2. A new, refined definition of psychology that limits it to only currently understood areas of human thought and behavior.

    Nevertheless, I think you might do well to develop your definition of psychology as you took great care to define science.

  2. seburke Says:

    Some work in psychology is not science. I don’t want to defend the claim that everything that anybody calls “psychology” is science – I wouldn’t even defend the claim that everything that anybody calls “science” is science. However, I want to encourage people to differentiate between research findings within academic disciplines rather than making assumptions about the disciplines as wholes.

    Different types of controls allow researchers to draw broader conclusions. But even a very simple experimental form with only two conditions allows some scientific conclusions. More sophisticated controls enable more sophisticated theoretical inferences – but they don’t change the main definitional category of the activity.

    My reference to the fMRI experiments was not to defend them as “science” – I was using them as an example of something that most people assume to be science anyway. My point is that fMRI and other technologies associated with the “hard sciences” are not necessary for psychology to be science.

    If I were to define the type of psychology that I’m interested in, I would include the word “science” in the definition, so it wouldn’t help much in this discussion. That said, the discipline of “psychology” is more broad.

    This isn’t really a serious structured argument – it’s more of a rant – and it’s designed to answer those people who claim simply that “psychology is not science,” rather than your more nuanced claim that “psychology might include something that is not science,” which could easily be true of biology and physics as well (e.g. string theory).

  3. Sophia Says:

    Wanted to ask you something about statements of group tolerance toward variance being enhanced by open contact, without disrupting the thread. I’d agree that any close encounters, or frequent sightings of, variant performance should aid that process of toleration. Am not sure whether or not very occasional encounters might not even emplace defensive mechanisms, if some initial threat response was elicited. Which I suppose, in real life terms, would make such tactics a numbers game, though mitigated by familiarity through other media.
    In respect of this post, I had the unfortunate experience of being in a humanities centred psychology course whose faculty decided halfway through to change to separatist neo-behaviourist nonsense out of politics. The questions I’d have would be more as to how much it should be a science, in terms of the narrow range of human phenomena that that enterprise of science, as a predictive system, can deal with.

  4. seburke Says:

    Dogmatic behaviorism is problematic not because it’s science but because it’s bad science.

    On approaches to knowledge:

    Psychological science does not preclude non-scientific ways of understanding aspects of human existence. Science does have its limitations. It has a lot to contribute to the study of human minds, however, and not just in the physical/neurological sense.


    Thanks for continuing the tolerance discussion.
    Public exposure to trans people seems to be increasing with time, so it’s not really a question of “small amount” versus “large amount” as if they’re alternatives to choose from. The small amount is what leads to larger amounts.

    But that’s also another reason why individuals are under no special obligation to out themselves for exposure’s sake. The broad social tendency is just that – a broad social tendency. My own personal situation and needs are more important and relevant than the small impact I might make in broad social terms by telling everyone about my history.

  5. Sophia Says:

    Re trans, just thinking that the quantity may affect the quality, but maybe not.
    Re psychology. In some ways this is a real and present dilemma. Essentially about 2 years ago I went through an extremely sudden and major gender shift, based at least partly on significant health issues affecting my endocrine system. In dealing with that cognitive/perceptual/hormonal and performative transition, I’ve had recourse to a number of models used within psychology ; PCT theory, gestalt figure/ ground distinctions,a little neuropsychology, as well as more philosophical notions around phenomenology of consciousness, and theory of knowledge, to arrive at a personal account of gender. I do find that the process often leads to choices over the representation of data as fitting within a scientific paradigm, because in some senses I do see science as generally more amenable to a base male perceptual set. Obviously thats not to in any way invalidate the scientific method, but it is to suggest that more productive and fruitful approaches in this area might be couched in terms of less quantifiable data forms.
    Maybe I’m really wondering whether the scientific method as applied to human behaviour contains the best possibilities for genuinely explanatory predictive models given such referents as are necessitated by the excluded middle.
    Or possibly I’m just very, very muddled and need sleep.

  6. seburke Says:

    Well, I’m a woman and a scientist. I certainly don’t view the scientific method as being more amenable to a “male perceptual set.” That is a pretty pervasive stereotype with well-documented consequences for women in science careers, and without documented empirical support for its assumptions.

    I know the essay I linked to doesn’t talk about science as it applies to psychology specifically, but it does explain why I believe science produces especially credible conclusions where it is capable of producing conclusions at all.

    It might be worth noting, just for the sake of emphasis, that I am not talking about clinical psychology here, for the most part. I am not talking about the desire to explain one individual’s thoughts and feelings. I am talking about the study of trends in human thought and behavior, such as the gender-science stereotype I referenced above.

    FYI, I’m about to change my display name because “seburke” feels so impersonal. Just mentioning this so it’s not confusing.

  7. Sophia Says:

    Sorry, I’m not really trying to make a statement about the scientific method being inherently gender specific in some way that might mean that men are significantly better at using it than women.
    An example of the kind of thing I am talking about. If I look at a set of filled bookshelves, now compared to 2 years ago with a different based metabolism, I’m confronted by certain differences. The most noticable one is that impressions of colour are now somewhat more foregrounded, in terms of sensorium impingement, compared to shape. This fits into a possible generalisation that perhaps colour is a more important component in female perception, something given evidentiary weight by the observations of linguists that female colour vocabulary is ordinarily far wider than male, (Lakoff etc. ).
    There are a number of ways that one could choose to explore this difference. One might set up concrete tasks to examine performance in colour discrimination between genders, or at criteria for grouping as between shape and colour. I wouldn’t want to say that using the methods of scientific research are not capable of application in these and many other ways.
    But lets say, as is indeed the case, that I’m more interested in the consideration of conscious perception as relational, and gendered difference in this regard. That’s something thats sufficiently speculative as to be presently difficult to investigate in a scientific manner, in terms of isolation of meaningful variables. Additionally, though, I’m not sure if there isn’t something rather problematic here, in that scientific method can be construed as itself a type of perception that’s paradigmatically unsuited to investigate the meaning of phenomena which have significance in systems organised along the lines of different priciples.
    OK, in some ways this is dangerous territory. But I do see it as perfectly defensible to say that the paradigms of scientific investigation have been formulated mainly by men, and produce observations that are particularly amenable to Kyriarchic discourse. I’m not concerned with whether or not theres any great gender bias in the accessibility of existing knowledge predicated on this, as much as with expanding the paradigms permissible under the rubric of the scientific method to account for knowledge forms that may perhaps be of more interest to non gendered perspectives.
    Or possibly I still haven’t had enough sleep.

  8. Sophia Says:

    Maybe to consider science as a set of strategies valid for certain formulations of knowledge, that needs to be expanded to cover others. I’d be interested in, say, whether the universe as envisaged through hopi linguistics could presently be amenable to very much exploration through present scientific praxis.

  9. Sara Burke Says:

    I would argue that it’s dangerous to assert any essential gender differences based on personal experience or intuition in the absence of scientific evidence anyway.

    Almost all valuable practices and institutions have problematic histories. Saying that men have historically dominated science is insufficient to show that the scientific method is inherently conservative.

    I am interpreting the following two statements, one from your comment and one from the essay I linked, as approximately synonymous. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    You: “scientific method can be construed as itself a type of perception that’s paradigmatically unsuited to investigate the meaning of phenomena which have significance in systems organised along the lines of different priciples.”

    Me: “In areas of empirical knowledge to which science is not applicable, such as most of history as a discipline, or to which it has not been successfully applied, other means of knowing like intuition based on experience remain meaningful.”

    I really think that this particular conversation is more pertinent to that other essay. (

  10. Sophia Says:

    Speculation’s always dangerous. In this case I minimise as far as possible using purely subjective elements. One point would be that I’d say one might investigate gender differences that don’t seem to be culturally specifíc, without being forced onto the more dubious grounds of gender essentialism. If you want to go further into this aspect, I’d suggest somewhere else. Contact me with a contact or something.
    Maybe this does belong on the other essay, but this one is something of a continuation.
    I don’t think the statements are the same. I think that you are talking about science as part of a set of modes of inquiry which attempt to elucidate true and accurate descriptions and predictive bases.
    By contrast I think that I’m emphasising science as a language. In terms of applicability to different subject areas then they both work about the same. When it comes to questions of, for example, descriptive scope and validity, the answers would be rather different.
    The specific gender thing about science is something of a work in progress for me, newly encountered rather than entrenched position. Because I’m particularly concerned with gender as regards perceptual processes and consequent general frames of cognition, I find myself looking on science as a relatively male language. I’m not particularly interested whether that limits its accessibility to women or furthers kyriarchy or is distinct from some notional ‘female science’. But I definitely am concerned with whether or not science contains some detrimental biases that are particularly apparent to the gendered eye, as to its vocabulary, its grammar and its lexical flexibility and creative ability. This against a background of some academic training in history and philosophy of science,phil/psych, some practice of the second, all less than contemporary, but chiefly a desire to enlarge the capabilities of science.
    And just as all discourses stand biased by their sociopolitical identities, I can’t see why gender shouldn’t be classed as similarly influential. Admittedly its speculative, but if a language has been pretty much formed by men and most of the conditions for its progress taking place in male dominated social conditions then to talk of possible male biases is not that irrational.
    Perhaps we might differ in that I’ve always been strongly influenced by Kelly, and the notion of a humanity made up of scientists has always strongly informed my worldview.

  11. Sara Burke Says:

    I think the issue might be that you’re talking about the social norms surrounding science, and I’m talking about the definition of science. If you mean that the scientific method itself is inherently male-centered, then I don’t understand why. If you mean that science has masculine norms or that it is associated with masculinity in our culture, then I agree.

    To me, the lexicon of science is merely an artifact of history, which is associated with but not essential to its methods.

    I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “science as a language.” It seems that the epistemology of science – or the methods of science – are compatible with many languages. The way scientists in the modern world (especially but not limited to the West) generally communicate their findings might constitute a “language,” but that phenomenon seems more narrow than “science” itself – I would call it a feature of the current set of norms surrounding academic disciplines which call themselves scientific, regardless of whether their methods actually meet the description.

  12. Sophia Says:

    Sorry to take so long, weird shit intervening.
    OK, so I’ll suggest that their are certain areas where we might agree that science may be biased, without entering issues of gender. If science is considered as a body of knowledge, or in terms of the praxis of scientific exploration and framed reporting, then biases clearly exist. Social norms that restrict and promote loci of scientific research and potential participants, are influential biasing factors.In part what I meant about science being a language was that it constitutes an abstract symbolic mode of discourse about the real world and that that discourse is effectively self constituted as a language.
    I believe what you’re saying is that despite problems in these areas, the scientific method as such retains an essential purity apart from them. Now, even if I agreed to such, I’d still have some problems. Its fine to talk about the scientific method as if it were some indivisible thing, but actually its a set of potential strategies, historically evolving, and responsive to intuitional challenges, such as issues surrounding falsifiability and statistical analysis. I think that one could advance the notion that, compared to an ideal scientific method that incorporates all relevant strategies, then the present constitution of method is surely biased.
    Additionally the scientific method would seem to embody certain assumptions of what constitute quanta and relationships in the world, and of the observer relation. Its very much in these areas that my present concerns lie, concerning potential gender bias. Primarily that’s because I see these as mirroring what, for me, are typically male intuitional paradigms.
    Does this get us any closer ?

  13. Sara Burke Says:

    Yes, that gets us closer.

    I do think that, while the practicable elements of scientific method may not be temporally stable, it is possible to criticize particular scientific findings based on their particular methodological flaws.

    I have also encountered no persuasive evidence that there is such a thing as a “male intuitional paradigm,” except inasmuch as women are taught that science is supposed to be counter-intuitive to them.

  14. Sara Burke Says:

    Oh, I should also clarify – it’s not that I think methodological flaws are unusual in science. Virtually all modern scientific endeavors have methodological flaws, and specific criticisms emerge from those flaws. But I think it is more productive to discuss those specifics than to write off science as a whole.

  15. Sophia Says:

    I don’t think its a matter of writing off science as much as finding areas where bias is possible, not necessarily to correct the methodological approach but to see where different approaches might be fruitful. In gender terms, I suppose I’d be interested in areas of science where the harmony of intuition and scientific paradigm might most closely reference male experience. Not purely theoretical, but its a commonplace to note the inter relationships between the rise of humanism and heliocentric astronomy, the devolution of monarchical absolutism concurrent with Newtonian physics, etc, etc, that reflect male experienced social/scientific paradigms. Would it make any sort of sense to you, if I was to designate, say, a problem in psychology and contrast an approach that sought to isolate basic components and their causative roles to one where the criticality of factors, irrespective of causative mechanism, was the prime focus. I would tend to identify these as representative of male and female approaches, defining ‘approaches’ as constructions of methodological approach most consonant with individual construal of social environments. Or something.
    Friday night is dinner/film/party night so I’ve got about 30 people rushing around. Its possible that the above thesis may lack a certain rigor due to the social environment in which its just been composed.

  16. Sara Burke Says:

    It would help to provide an example, yes. Since not all scientific endeavors seek to isolate causes, I’m still not sure what the distinction is between the approaches you’re describing.

    Even if you presented a clearly distinct approach, however, I would not be willing to accept without definitive evidence that it is, in fact, a “female approach” in some fundamental way.

  17. Sophia Says:

    OK, I might give the example of a comment I’m considering relative to a feminist article talking about the stereotyping of a general ’emotional’ description used of female activists and its constrictive vision of basic gender neutral motivation.
    I would tend to disagree. I would tend to say that women are more emotional than men. And I’d say that the language was rigged.
    I’d base this on my own perceptions of my interior gender passage ; on the narratives of other m2f women ; on women to women communication ; and on congruence with the overall model that I have. I’d wholeheartedly assert that a woman’s life as mediated through an estrogen metabolism is far more emotionally rich than that of a male, on those bases.
    Clearly there are insufficient grounds for me to assert this as knowledge, but as part of a hypothesis of gender difference, I’d say it merits entertainment.
    The main problem, for me, is linguistic. A man describing a woman as very emotional, in the sphere of activism or otherwise, is normally positing a worldview wherein the processes of rationality are jeopardised by the force and tendency to random emotionality within the caring female frame.
    Now I would rather see female emotionality as a far more complex set of arousal systems geared to the human environment that allow for far finer discriminatory perception in this regard. Any implication that that competence overreaches itself in nullifying rational cognition I’d take as pure kyriarchic libel.
    But if one were to grant this possibility, then there would be the strong implication that the integration of so many more and more subtle information gathering systems would reflect itself in the science of everyday life that we all engage in, and in the methodologies thereof.
    If one were to ask whether this range of techniques used in the creation of individual empiric predictive models finds adequate expression within the paradigms of the scientific method, the answer would have to be purely speculative. As a transfeminist, though, I’d place a high value on exploration based on the notion that it does not. And as a scientist, I’d say that it was potentially an extremely fruitful hypothesis.
    As someone charged with providing definitive evidence, I may be forced to substitute the merely suggestive,but it may be not without utility. The same may not be said of the operation of my own brain when it’s past 3 and I’ve still got stragglers. Does this advance matters ?

  18. Sara Burke Says:

    I haven’t read the article in question, but the definition of a stereotype does not imply that it is false, just that it is a group perception. What part of their methods do you disagree with? Or is it just their interpretation of the results that you disagree with?

    That said, I do not consider individual experiences particularly good evidence for innate gender differences in the population as a whole, especially considering the huge body of evidence that perceived differences can arise from many social sources, and the lack of evidence that the biological manifestations of personality differences are correlated with gender for nonsocial reasons.

    Besides, even if somebody found some real evidence that some portion of the correlation could be explained by an inherent biological tendency for women to have a higher probability of developing emotional personality types, such information would not justify a conclusion that emotionality is an inherently female characteristic, any more than height is an inherently male characteristic.

    On a separate note, I agree that emotionality is not bad, and that fighting negative perceptions of emotionality is important.

    Regarding narratives as evidence:
    You might note that I list things like “rhetoric” and “philosophy” among the topics of this blog. I have studied literature for years and I value the kind of things it can teach us. Individual narratives and the like are essential for idiographic analysis of the world. But they do not help much with nomothetic analysis of the world, and thus they cannot be used to draw general conclusions. Science, on the other hand, is effective for nomothetic analysis, but not very effective for idiographic analysis.

  19. Sophia Says:

    The difficulty is that in practical terms this approach to possible gender difference would seem hard to defend in terms of properly constituting the best scientific practice.
    The point is surely that to start from a basis that gender difference in cognition is purely hypothetical means ignoring a vast body of evidence. The ground is one of clear neurological differentiation ; of behavioural difference from early age;and of evidence in gender differentiated behaviour across the animal kingdom. Agreed, gender differences can arise from many social sources, but to adduce that they have no connection with innate structures would seem an extreme position to take.
    The universality of social factors in gendered behaviour is certainly a significant problem for investigation, but isn’t necessarily evidential of universal social causation of such. Additionally I would definitely not be looking at gender differences as rooted in personality types. (Apologies due to you for not making clear that I was using ’emotion’ primarily in a neuro-psychological sense.)
    As a feminist, I would vehemently disagree with any theory of gender difference as a determinant of social roles. As a trans woman my experience of cognitive change concomitant with gender shift, and separate from social identification, renders me incapable of denying strong basic gender difference. As a transfeminist I’d see such gender differences as being in urgent need of exploration in that they would seem to be the recalcitrant areas of which education to modify undesirable behaviour needs to take account. So, for example, if more sophisticated emotion based systems of perception are innately female, it may be of little use to encourage greater emotional sensitivity in male children, but correspondingly more essential to develop empathic mechanisms, if one were to seek to modify adult male violence.
    I’m sorry, but I do find your points about narrative somewhat off the point. I too have studied literature for years,a year at college, teaching qualification, present library of c.25,000 titles. If I wanted to perhaps examine what innate persistent and physically based characteristics of China might exist, I’ve recourse to various narratives in the form of novels, fantasies,detective stories and thrillers and rather too many stories ‘set against the tumultuous background of the cultural revolution’. But I would give far more weight to accounts of travel to and through China, and I’d certainly accord similar significance to trans narratives. Separating idiographic and nomothetic in this regard could be regarded as a little forced. Just as travel accounts are normally authored and locate themselves in relationship to other accounts, so my trans narrative is informed by others of a similar nature, as well as cis narratives of gender difference
    I can appreciate that you want to preserve this space as an area for debate and reasoned argument, or, if not, as an outlet for your analytical writing. But not utilising our common trans narratives would seem somewhat counterproductive in that it doesn’t seem to allow for reasonable speculation and hypothesis formation in the areas we’re considering.

  20. Sara Burke Says:

    I am not sure what you mean by “As a trans woman my experience of cognitive change concomitant with gender shift, and separate from social identification, renders me incapable of denying strong basic gender difference.”
    After all, here we are, two trans women, not agreeing precisely on that question.

    I definitely agree that gender identity is innate. I am just not persuaded that emotionality is essential to gender. Like I said before, even if emotionality is correlated through some biological mechanism with gender-related hormones, all the existing evidence suggests that it would not be a perfect correlation. I think it’s dangerous to say that it is “of little use to encourage greater emotional sensitivity in male children.” That limits human potential and ignores the fact that individual men can be just as emotionally sensitive as individual women, even despite vastly different socialization processes, and even despite the potential/hypothesized hormonal effects.

    Yeah, I didn’t mean to equate fiction with nonfiction narratives. Obviously they have different uses. I phrased that poorly. But my point is that, while an individual narrative can tell us a lot, especially about that individual, in terms of generalizing, single data points are less useful than statistical evidence.
    Phrases like “informed by other narratives” with no comment on how those narratives were obtained suggests serious selection biases and probably interpretive biases.

    Besides, our narratives as trans women don’t seem that useful to me in generalizing about emotionality and hormones. Our brains may respond negatively to having the wrong hormones in ways that male brains might not respond to those same hormones. Plus, we are often especially happy and hopeful around the time of starting HRT, and there’s plenty of evidence that positive affect can contribute to a more general emotional openness.

  21. Sophia Says:

    I think if you do have a strong belief that gender identity is innate, then I’m not sure that we’re disagreeing over strong basic gender difference.
    We may be disagreeing about emotionality, but I don’t think our vocabulary in this area is so far sufficiently mutually agreed to be sure.
    When I talk about emotionality, I’m doing so in the context of a cognitive paradigm of emotion/arousal. Possibly I’d also see it as an underpinning of non-verbal language. What I’m asserting concerning emotionality is that it constitutes a larger and more sophisticated system within female capabilities of judgement and perception than male.
    Another way of saying it is that women conflate less because they’re capable of finer discrimination through perception mediated through emotions.
    Thats not to say that these systems lead to any given set of emotional relationships. Emotional perception used to interpret anothers state of well being doesn’t predicate empathy. Capability does not necessitate degree of use.
    The potential problems regarding male emotional sensitivity relates to the fact that I don’t believe emotional sensitivity can actually be taught. Again the same is not true of empathy which may also be a minor factor affecting sensitivity and a major one in motivation to utilise that sensitivity.And I’m talking competence and not necessarily individual performance.
    I’m equally not asserting anything regarding emotional content, save greater possible discrimination. The common experience that I’m adducing from trans narratives isn’t so much that old proverbial sense of happiness, but that, normally along with hormones, emotions impinge more on consciousness and constitute some perennial problems to integrate within one’s perceptual system.
    Might this be testable through examination of arousal patterns between genders ? Maybe, but it certainly wouldn’t be simple. Possibly data on sexual arousal patterns might be relevant. I’m not asserting any perfect fit with the hugely variable field of trans narratives, but I would say that it seems, as a hypothesis, to be compatible with a sizable majority.
    Could this get us closer to agreement as to a potentially fruitful area to explore in terms of understanding innate gender difference?

  22. Sara Burke Says:

    Even if “emotionality” is defined in terms of cognitive discrimination capability, I think my arguments still apply:

    “even if [emotional discrimination] is correlated through some biological mechanism with gender-related hormones, all the existing evidence suggests that it would not be a perfect correlation.”

    “individual men can be just as emotionally sensitive [and able to discriminate between emotional responses and communicate non-verbally] as individual women”

    “Our brains may respond negatively to having the wrong hormones in ways that male brains might not respond to those same hormones[, such as by stifling our emotional responses in general and our emotional discrimination in particular].”

    “Plus, we are often especially happy and hopeful around the time of starting HRT, and there’s plenty of evidence that positive affect can contribute to a more general emotional openness [which implicates discrimination capacity and non-verbal language].”

  23. Sophia Says:

    The arguments may still be applicable, but I believe their force is somewhat diminished. In order,
    ‘even if…’ Is a perfect correlation necessary to be significant ? This does rather take us back to the extent to which psychology is a science.
    ‘individual men..’ I could go along with statements that some men can be extremely emotionally sensitive as some women. I’m not necessarily saying that this is likely to be more than a highly significant mode of gender differentiation. As to non verbal communication, I must say I find the range and speed of f2f conveyance of information absolutely startling, and continue to do so. I’m surprised, to say the least that you find no evidence of this in day to day interaction.
    ‘Our brains…’ Agreed. But surely this only accounts for a short period of acclimatisation.
    ”Plus…’This I think is no longer valid. Narrative accounts seem consistent in implicating general sensitivity,ie not simply positive, and I’m not sure what implicative mechanism you’re proposing.
    Emotion is not central to my overall model of gender difference, but it is a significant element. On a personal level, getting better attuned to what for me are hugely different perceptive systems in this regard is something that’s at the head of my transition work for this year. And I do think that there are possibilities for some element of testing.
    If you favour a model of innate gender difference, then I’d suggest that it would be difficult to construct sans this differentiation re emotion.
    How might you propose to circumvent it ?

  24. Sara Burke Says:

    “Is a perfect correlation necessary to be significant?”
    No, of course not. But it would be necessary to prove an essential gender difference rather than merely, well, a correlation, much like height or lung capacity.
    I’m not sure what that has to do with psychology as a science…

    “As to non verbal communication, I must say I find the range and speed of f2f conveyance of information absolutely startling, and continue to do so.”
    Again, there are huge social factors at play. An observed behavioral difference is not evidence of an innate biological difference.

    “‘Our brains…’ Agreed. But surely this only accounts for a short period of acclimatisation.”
    I’m not sure we’re on the same page here. I’m going to rephrase my original point and see if you still have the same response:
    If testosterone fucked with my emotions BECAUSE I’M A WOMAN, then there’s no reason to believe it would do the same for a man.

    “…I’m not sure what implicative mechanism you’re proposing.”
    You’re asking why the effects of that happiness are stable? One reason might be that we’re flat-out happier in our target genders, period. Another might be the result of new social environments.

    “If you favour a model of innate gender difference, then I’d suggest that it would be difficult to construct sans this differentiation re emotion.”
    I’m going to find a particular quote from an earlier essay, and paste it into my next comment. Stay tuned.

  25. Sara Burke Says:

    The discussion of gender differences is interesting, but I do want to emphasize that I’m less invested in it than in the conceptual separation between identity and behavior. At the very least, gender identity is conceptually distinct from gendered emotion patterns, behaviors, personality traits, cognitive tendencies, or whatever else. I would describe gender identity as the mere sense that one is male, female, or neither – emphasis on the word “mere.” I do think that these genders are innate and that we naturally look for social phenomena to associate ourselves with based on them – and I acknowledge that it is conceivable that there may even be mental constructs which correlate with them naturally – but that definitely doesn’t mean that those mental constructs are the same thing as the identity itself.

    Here is the quotation I was thinking of. It is from the essay at the below URL, but that essay is really old and I haven’t re-read the whole thing to verify that my ideas are the same, so I am not recommending that you read it or anything like that, especially since it is specifically about an individual book.
    ( )

    . . . the outward manifestations of socialized gender roles, the behavior quirks that are associated with “masculine” and “feminine” attitudes toward the self, “gendered” styles of communication, and other attitudinal and behavioral stereotypes of gender are not intrinsic to gender identity. They are, on face, unrelated to our internal experiences of gender; it is in the interactions between individuals and societies that they become projected onto the psychological contours of gender identity, and in most cases internalized through complex associations. This doesn’t mean that everyone a society treats as male will see themselves as male – but it does mean that most people raised in a sexist society will link maleness (whether they identify with it or not) with what that society describes as “masculinity.” . . . . .

    Since our society’s expectations for women and men are arbitrary and limiting, knowledge of them should not be a part of the internal definition of a woman or man. Obviously everyone should have the ability to conform or not to conform. It is inevitable that most people will have at least a vague idea of what actions constitute conformity. However, social codes, though powerful, are not rigid, and variations abound. Knowledge of any particular social code might provide someone with tools to express elements of his or her identity, but it should not be a prerequisite to existing with those elements. Nobody would argue that a female diplomat traveling to a vastly different culture with unknown expectations for women ceases to meet the requirements for being female. . . .

    . . . The problematization of social gender does not require the extermination of individual gender identity, but neither does the expression of individual identity necessitate the preservation of social roles.

  26. Sophia Says:

    Quick response to your previous responses.
    ‘Perfect correlation…’ An overall model should fit, but this is a supporting aspect only in mine.
    ‘Non verbal…’ Agree re social factors but don’t think they’re necessarily sufficient.
    ‘Our brains…’ Hadn’t taken this in well, you’re right.
    With the other points I’m not sure that we’re not back to diverging on emotion definitions. ‘Emotional openness’ is perfectly understandable as a cognitive stance, but I’m talking more about emotion as a changed ground of cognition.
    My own approach to gender identity springs from my own trans narrative which is atypical, and I do make a strong distinction between it and gender self identification, about which the word mere is one I can easily go along with.
    To repeat some stuff from my blog. Slightly less than 2 years ago, I found myself in a very altered state of consciousness. One strong element of that, was a heightened sense of gender identities of others and an inability on my part to any more self describe as male. Others related to quite basic changes in perception and cognition. The nature of the process that I then threw myself into to understand these changes had little to do with self reflection on identification. It was rather more attempting to locate myself through asking others about their own characterisations of perception and quickly discovering that I seemed to now have changed my basic perceptual/cognitive structure to one far more similar to female reported ones. Because there was the initial possibility of neural damage, and also out of past approaches, theoretical and practical, to altered states of consciousness, I’ve tried to be as rigorous as possible in examining this altered state, with gender identification more like the tail of the dog, though obviously of some personal importance.
    I’m, hopefully, not trying to make myself into some totally exceptional case. Whilst having no history of dysphoria or gender dissonance, I’ve been sufficiently distanced from gender classifications as to be not untypically trans. But my process is in many ways a compressed and partially reversed one, compared to more conventional trans narratives.
    In regard to those, I can see that your characterisations of social norms could be relevant in terms of a quest for gendered self identity. But in my case, I feel they’re broadly irrelevant. My quest is rather to understand the nature of my changes and relate those to what I’d see as consequents of changed hormonal and neurological make up. Please note comment elsewhere.
    Social gender I’ll view as a part of transition learning. Gender identification involves feminist understandings of personal experience. Gender identity in the sense of differentiating between male and female, is something that for me, has little connection with either.

  27. Sophia Says:

    One supplementary point, that I’m talking about emotion/arousal states as they’re mediated through the sensorium ; changes in the corpus callosum have influence on the sensorium ; the corpus callosum seems to be strongly changed in pre and post hormonal trans women. Obviously not direct support, but suggestive.

  28. Sara Burke Says:

    Suggestive, indeed. Do you have a citation regarding those changes to the corpus callosum?

  29. Sophia Says:

    Shouldn’t have put it so definitely BUT…. The main structures which some studies have claimed both sexually dimorphic and altered in transexuals are the splenium section of the corpus callosum and the anterior commisure, with possibly more supporting evidence for the latter. The splenium link to the sensorium is a commonplace in that damage to the first affects the latter. The AC is linked with visual, olfactory and auditory as well as cognitive processing.
    We’re not dealing with analysis based on unchallenged assumptions about the data : post mortem examinations suffer from many methodological difficulties, such as sample size, and mri scans offer only partial views.Given the slipperiness of neurology in general, I can’t see any studies, including the BSTc layer ones, that offer unambiguous results. One thing that I’ve had, and which Zoe Brain and others who have gone through this sort of sudden gender shift, is a definite change in sensitivities as regards taste and smell. In my case, I’d say that my sensory relation to music is different now too.Again, suggestive.
    One further point. We’re touching on areas where I have significant expertise as an observer ; that’s one reason why it’s been so comparatively easy for me to accept this shift, and why I feel that I can make some sort of potentially useful contribution re gender difference.

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