Not too long ago I wrote about behavioural science being too WEIRD, referring to countries that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic, and as such a very specific subset of countries and populations to study when it comes to behavioural insights we deem to be generalizable, and to hold for everyone.
Now it is clear that those coming from WEIRD countries are privileged. There’s no point in denying it either. If you feel like denying your privilege I don’t think this article is for you. Just click away. It’s fine. If you’re still here, at least you’re acknowledging your privilege. Which I suppose is step one. But what on earth is step two?! When it comes to conducting research, especially behavioural research, it is important to be aware of your own biases. Why? Because they might influence how you design your research, but also how you interpret and explain the findings that come out of it. Although I think privilege is much more fundamental and much more shaping than a bias is, I think it shapes a lot of the biases that we have. If you don’t know poverty, you might misattribute your own wealth to hard work, discipline and dedication, and fail to factor in, or not accurately account for privilege and well, luck (another factor that people don’t really know what to do with). If you do know poverty, it is very likely that you approach wealth, wealth accumulation and (financial) decision-making differently. This is not a necessity, but it is most definitely a possibility.
The decision making process of someone who knows, is very different from someone who doesn’t know. But here lies the issue: the not knowing. Do we believe that if you don’t know poverty (or any other state really), can you ever fully understand the decision-making that follows from it? I suppose this question isn’t a new one: can you truly ever understand something you have never experienced? Can you map out the decision process of someone with experiences very different from you. Experiences unknown to you?
On my own blog, I sometimes write articles that are predominantly advice based. The topics I feel (somewhat) equipped to give advice on are personal finance and doing a PhD. I can tell you the pitfalls of how people handle money. I can tell you what is (often) the smart thing to do, and things which are a bit less smart. But when it comes to privilege (in terms of wealth), I am its poster child. I have no debts of any kind, not even student loans. I get paid to do my PhD, I have savings and investments. I don’t think I’ve even ever hit overdraft. You can call that conscientious. Or you can call it privileged. When in that position, who am I to give advice about getting out of poverty? It’s exactly the reason that I’ve never given such specific advice: I haven’t done it. I wouldn’t know.
When it comes to doing the PhD, I feel I got a slightly wider range of experiences which I know are common to quite a few PhD students so I feel more comfortable giving advice in this area but I don’t have experiences in everything related to doing the PhD. If someone were to tell me for example: “My supervisor has been ignoring me for months. I can’t reach them. My research is suffering as a result. No one is helping me. I don’t know what to do.” I think my advice to them would be quite harsh. I would probably tell them to go in “guns blazing.” If not to their supervisors, then to management or whomever I could find. Launch a formal complaint, and see if things change. Because I think that that is what I would do, if I were to be in that situation. But would I? Would I still have the energy and the fighting spirit left to tackle this problem after months of being ignored?
Another example here is that of abuse and inappropriate behaviour in the supervisor-supervisee relationship. I know what type of advice I would give. But I would I even be able to act on my own advice, had I been in such a situation? I am very privileged to have never occurred it, but what does that say or my perspective on the matter? This problem doesn’t just affect this blog and me as a person giving advice. Positions of privilege and (lack of) experience fuel the biases in which we do research. They direct our research to topics that we, but also those in charge find interesting. Attention is directed to things that sell (or publish) rather than things that may further basic understanding. Especially understanding of a group that is not in charge.
A lot of things that aren’t directly related to improving or understanding the lives of those who know privilege are underfunded and as a result understudied. Is that surprising? No. Is that problematic? Yes. We have for a long period of time assumed that the biases and decision-making processes we study are generalizable. As I wrote in the previous article on WEIRD, this very much remains to be seen. But WEIRD isn’t the only direction in which we find bias. Closely linked to WEiRD we find privilege. And coming from privilege skews your perception of yourself, of others, and of the world. This is important. It is always important to de-bias yourself best as you can.
So, step one is to acknowledge your privilege.
I guess step two is to check your privilege. Find out how it manifests, how it skews perception, how it directs attention and how it affects value-based judgements.
Step three should then flow quite natural: control for your privilege.
Originally published on Money On The Mind 04/09/2020