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How Social Values Affect Psychology Research

Psychology research, like all research, should be valid and reliable. Its goal should be an objective and unbiased search for the truth. Only if we know the truth about a psychological disorder—its cause, its course and its final outcome—can we understand and treat that disorder.

There are times when social values deter research and even censor it. For example, if a researcher were to do research that proved that belief in a supreme being was detrimental to healthy development such a study would most likely be repudiated as sacrilegious, even if it were valid and reliable. If the study provided evidence that belief in a supreme was a superstition that was associated with certain mental disorders, it would likely not even be considered, and its authors would be devalued.

Values are always in flux. At the moment, political movements on behalf of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender groups have elevated members of these groups to almost a sacred level. They are valued by society to an extent that we are bending over backwards to treat them well, perhaps to make up for previous discrimination. However, this new value system , may encourage some research while becoming a stumbling block to others.

The political movements have gained the rights for gays and lesbians to marry and have children, and this has been bolstered by a lot of research the aim of which is to prove that lesbian couples can be just as good at parenting as a traditional husband and wife. However, if anybody were to do research that showed that lesbian parents were not as good for children, that the lack of a male role model may be detrimental to children, such research would likely be met with derision and accused of being homophobic. So, even though the research might be valid and reliable, it would probably be dismissed without a fair appraisal.

The new value system with regard to women extols women who work and views female homemakers in a derogatory light. The ideal woman, according to this new value system, appears to be a militant woman, a woman who “kicks ass,” who is competitive with men and who can do anything that a man can do, including serving in a combat role in the army. The new value system about women seems to disregard the biological differences in men. Hence any psychological research that purports to prove that males and females are different and should have roles in society based on those differences will most likely be viewed as sexist and antiquated and thereby be immediately dismissed.

Likewise any research that studies women who stay at home to take care of children, rather than going back to work, and concludes that children need mothers who are homemakers, will once again most probably be seen as sexist. This finding just does not fit into the current feminist value system. Likewise, any research that shows that children do better developmentally in families in which the mother stays at home for a longer period of time would be seen with skepticism, if not contempt.

Surveys have shown that about a third (35%) of all families in America right now are single-parent families in which one parent, usually the mother, serves as both mother and father for her children; and this statistic is growing. Our values have shifted along with this change and the popular sentiment is that single parents can do just fine at parenting alone. Proponents of single-parent families point out that many successful people have come from single-parent families. The sentiment towards approving single parents and disproving anybody who does a critical study on the subject is very strong.

The fact that most of the single parents are African-Americans also represents a shift in our values. According to statistics, 72 percent of black kids are raised by single parents (usually the mother) and 25 percent of all single-parent families are black. These single-parent families also tend to be more impoverished. Yet any research focusing on the rise in African-American single-parent families, and shows, let us say, that such families result in children who have developmental problems, will be viewed as racist, and therefore be discouraged by our social values, even if such research is valid and reliable.

Researchers have been trying to find the cause of autism for a century. However, once again social values—namely the value that is found in the slogan, “Don’t blame the mother,” have prevented us from considering mothers as a cause. Even if recent research shows a link between depressed or postpartum depressed mothers and developmental arrests of their infants and young children, such research is summarily dismissed.

If we look at social values cross-culturally or historically, we can’t avoid the conclusion that they differ in cultures all over the world, and they have differed historically in various cultures from ancient times on. Families in Muslim cultures, for example, differ markedly from families in Western cultures, primarily because of the difference in social values in these countries. In Muslim countries women are required to cover their entire bodies and encouraged to be homemakers, whereas in Western countries women are allowed to show their bodies (even praised in red-carpet events for showing as much of their body as they can), and encouraged to have careers.

This brings up a related question: Should our social values be based on the pressures of political or religious movements, or should they be based on unbiased scientific research? Historically social values have been based on religious or political movements (that is, on sentiment) rather than on scientific research.

Values based on scientific research would differ greatly from values based on religious or political beliefs. Values based on scientific research would ask the question, “What values will result in the healthiest culture?” Thus, our social values would not be based on one person’s or one movement’s belief system, but on valid and reliable research. Thus parenting would be organized on principles that have been scientifically proven to be most effective in raising healthy adults.

Research could, in addition, help us to define what a healthy adult is. Is a healthy woman a militant woman who “kicks ass,” or is she a woman who is soft and flexible and able to adjust to various circumstances? Is a healthy man a man who is soft and yields to women’s needs, or is he a man who is an independent thinker?

As long as social values are based on the sentiments of religious or political groups, they will prevent us from finding out what truly works in terms of values and what doesn’t work. As long as they are based on sentiments, we will be prevented from looking for the truth when that truth conflicts with the prevailing social values.

How Social Values Affect Psychology Research

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2017). How Social Values Affect Psychology Research. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 16, 2018, from


Last updated: 14 Jun 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 14 Jun 2017
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