Understanding the Impacts of Body Positivity and Its Alternatives


Written by Dr. Kalynda C. Smith
Edited by Manuel Galvan

Dr. Kalynda C. Smith, faculty member at N.C. A&T. She recently received an over half million dollar grant to study the issues explored in this article.

Awareness of the Body Positivity Movement has ebbed and flowed over the last few decades. There has been a resurgence in discussions of body positivity due to a social media-fueled focus on physical appearances. The movement originated in the late 1960s, when Bill Fabrey founded the Body Positivity Movement to address and decrease fatphobia. The purpose of the movement was to recognize that those with bigger bodies, especially women, were discriminated against because of their appearance. The most recent incarnation of the movement has borrowed from other social justice traditions to embrace the beauty of people of all sizes, races/ethnicities, genders and atypical functions. While the body positivity movement tries to address the problem of stigma caused by physical appearance, obesity-related illnesses constitute a health crisis. In this article, we attempt to address what effects body positivity and body shaming have on these problems. What is the evidence for and against body positivity? Are there unintentional negative consequences to body positivity and, if so, what are some alternatives?

Body Positivity and its Discontents

Social media, particularly image-based media like Instagram, has changed the way that people communicate compared to more text-based social media. On Instagram more than other platforms, physical appearance is the central focus. Furthermore, because digital media has evolved to include advanced filters, individuals can now alter their faces and bodies, to digitally enhance their physical appearances. Instagram and similar apps have made people hyper-aware of their appearance. For those who have the idealized physical features, this hyper-awareness serves to protect their self-esteem, even providing a means for people to monetize their physical appearance. The “Instagram model” is an attractive person who is able to use their appearance to sell products on Instagram and similar apps. Their beauty is both real and unreal (due to the process of digital enhancement), but their prominence is a result of centering physical appearance on social media. Just as many opportunities arose from this change in social media that may have not been available otherwise, a darker side of the focus on physical appearance became more apparent. While “beautiful” people were lauded, those who did not fit the traditional definition of beauty were shamed. Trolling people who did not fit Eurocentric beauty standards became the norm on social media, regardless of a user’s type of post or message. The intolerance and vitriol from internet users led to a rebirth of the Body Positivity Movement.

One of the critiques articulated by the Body Positivity Movement is that beauty is too often associated with thinness, Eurocentric features, White skin, and cis-gendered heterosexual femininity, while women with darker skin, plus-sized or divergent body types, and/or queer identities are unacceptable. Notably, body positivity very quickly became a political battleground; the proponents and opponents of body positivity emerged from the usual political camps of liberals and conservatives, respectively. Opponents tend to concentrate on size when discussing body positivity, arguing that people (typically women) with bigger bodies are unhealthy. They argue that calling “unhealthy bodies” beautiful is a disservice, because criticisms of weight can motivate overweigh people to improve their bodies and, ultimately, their health. One difficulty with this argument against body positivity lies in the assumption that bigger bodies are not healthy, but “bigger” is subjective. What is considered “too big” to be healthy has changed over time in the U.S. alone, and differs according to culture across the globe. Many well-known and oft-used Western measures of healthy body weight have had very little evidence of their accuracy especially across different body types and races or ethnicities. For, instance, the popular Body Mass Index (BMI) does not distinguish fat from muscle, and it has been found that African Americans are likely to have less fat mass than White Americans with the same BMI. This suggests that overweight and obesity ranges for African Americans should be higher than they are for White Americans. Another fallacy embedded in this argument is that public criticism and body shaming will result in motivation to exercise, eat healthy and ultimately lose weight. There is little empirical evidence to support this belief. The available scientific evidence suggests a nearly opposite conclusion: Fat shaming undermines a person’s healthy self-image and belief in their ability to manage their weight and the resulting weight stigma is more likely to push them away from exercise and towards unhealthy eating habits.

As previously mentioned, the issue goes beyond those who are simply for or against body positivity. While there is scientific and anecdotal evidence against the anti-body positivity arguments, there are also disagreements between people who support body positivity. Some have noted that the women, usually White cis-gendered wealthy celebrities, who have taken up the conversation have fairly typical or “normative” thin bodies. Body positivity has allowed these women to present their bodies in ways that they find more honest, exposing cellulite, stretch marks, and skin folds, which can be liberating for all women. However, body positivity began as a way to center the discussion on bodies that were not normatively thin, White, or cisgender as beautiful. Many argue that mainstreaming the movement has perpetuated the erasure of those who were meant to benefit from it. Yet, even as the movement fractures, it gains momentum, and still less of it focuses on the actual health of women’s bodies.

Health: What Matters Most

The prevalence of obesity has been on a steady rise in the U.S. and around the world in the last few decades. African American/Black women in the U.S. specifically have higher rates of obesity and over-weight status, creating a health crisis for these women. The risk factors associated with obesity are increases in the likelihood of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, some cancers, and more. These conditions can be fatal or result in severely lower quality of life for those living with any of these ailments. These diseases also incur significant healthcare costs, which are particularly burdensome for African American women who are economically disadvantaged in the U.S.. Size discrimination can also lead to poor mental health, such as an increase in depression and bulimia. Children especially are at risk of experiencing bullying based on their size. As already noted, size stigma and weight shaming just perpetuates negative habits like avoiding exercise and overeating (see research here, here, and here). While body positivity messages can serve as buffer to protect self-esteem and confidence, we need to consider the possible unintentional negative consequences. Without the correct framing and context, could messages in the name of body positivity lead to health habits and behaviors that increase obesity for at risk populations?

Currently, young women and girls receive many, if not most, messages about health, fitness, diet and beauty through social media. However, there is also inadequate policing of content, resulting in messages lacking appropriate context or messages that are unintentionally, or even maliciously, inaccurate. Messages about body image may be especially prone to being misconstrued on social media because they are heavily associated with consumerism. Diet books have been sold in the U.S. since the 1920s and are often a vehicle to spread pseudoscience and misinformation to vulnerable people (often women) who are desperate to find healthy ways to stay fit. Social media messages tagged as #thinspiration or #fitspiration are often the modern incarnation of the same predatory practices in those antiquated diet books. Thinspiration messages encourage viewers to participate in behaviors that will keep their bodies thin (lose fat), including encouraging and praising disordered eating. Fitspiration encourages viewers to focus on fitness (gain muscle) but are also likely to include messages that associate eating and overweight bodies with guilt or shame. These are some potential harms that result from fat shaming, but many are concerned that some body positivity messaging has swung to the other extreme, encouraging women to embrace obesity, despite the many harms that may come with it.

To ensure that body positivity messages don’t have unintentional negative consequences, body positivity messages should be paired with the evidence-based suggestion that women should monitor their physical health to improve or maintain their quality of life. Furthermore, those attempting to create body-positive images should be cognizant of characteristics of the bodies depicted. Many body positivity messages contain images of traditionally thin, White, able-bodied women or plus size women with a body type that is unrealistic for many – small waist, flat stomach, large breasts, hips, thighs and bottom – in sexualized poses. Some of these videos and pictures are posted in an effort to normalize bigger bodies, which is extremely important, especially for women of color who tend to have bigger bodies than White women; however, normalizing bodies that are large, but atypical in their proportions, does not necessarily advance self-love for the women who need those messages the most (i.e., women with proportions who do not fit the beauty stereotypes). Further, social media is more likely to be used by younger women whose health habits are likely to set the stage for their health for the rest of their lives (also see here). Messages focusing on looks instead of health are likely to be damaging for these young women, especially African American/Black women who are more likely to be plus size and develop conditions like diabetes with less resources to manage these conditions.

A Better Approach

The Health at Every Size approach eschews a preoccupation with weight and looks and instead focuses on health habits. While being overweight or obese is correlated with health risk factors, it is only one of many factors that are correlated with health and longevity (see here, here, here, and here). By expanding the conversation about health beyond just weight, the Health at Every Size movement shows much promise in addressing both health and positive body image. Health at Every Size messages highlight the benefits of healthy eating and maintaining good fitness habits. These messages are likely to increase healthy habits and prevent disordered eating compared to those espoused by thinspiration, fitspiration, or sexualized body positivity messages. These messages are also likely to be especially helpful to younger women as a preventative measure rather than as an intervention.

While the intent of the Body Positivity Movement started as a place of empowerment for plus size women, then moved on to celebrate all bodies despite race, gender, or ability, through social media, the current movement is so mainstream that it needs to be sure not to reinforce the very beauty ideals it intends to protest. The cyclical nature of beauty standards in the U.S. would suggest that perhaps body neutrality is ideal. Instead of reinforcing the importance of the beauty of bodies, which is subjectively defined and inevitably used as a tool of oppression by the dominant culture, it would likely benefit individuals and society to emphasize being appreciative and respectful of the bodies we have. Body neutrality allows us to normalize all bodies. The ideological debate regarding body positivity and the shame associated with thinspiration and fitspiration messages demonstrate the persistent belief that “what is beautiful is good,” which gets to the heart of the problem. We need to move beyond this focus on beauty. Our bodies allow us to live. They do not determine our worthiness as individuals or the quality of our character. When we can finally shed this divisive, inaccurate, and dangerous belief, we can then enhance the quality of every life, especially those already marginalized groups with so much more on their proverbial plates to deal with.

Who should we vote for to promote health and well-being?

For better or worse, the US has a two-party political system. This means that when a voter enters a voting booth, they often must choose between a member of the Republican party or the Democratic party. Given this system, most people are “partisan” in the sense that they vote exclusively for one party or the other. Choosing between the two parties suggests a comparison between Democratic liberal policies and Republican conservative policies. Such a comparison should help us navigate politics and make decisions when we’re in the voting booth.

While it’s true that the parties are constantly being compared with one another, much of this often operates as political noise. The fraught and seemingly broken political environment has led many people to see very little difference between the parties. In the political center many people feel that both sides, particularly the extremes, are comparably unreasonable and bad-faith. People often feel like they should be somewhere between the two parties to be “reasonable” or “free-thinking.” People on the far ends of the political spectrum mock this position as “enlightened centrism” and argue that their opponents at the opposite side of the political spectrum are clearly worse. Interestingly, many people on the far left/right can reach a similar perspective that “both sides are equally bad.” In my experience this is often leftists being critical of the “voting for the lesser of two evils” model of democracy and refusing to vote for the Democrats because they are “just another conservative party.” This is all to say, there are many people who do not think there are meaningful differences between the parties. But, one’s views on this topic can have important implications for voting, democracy, and policy.

As an evidence-based voter, my vote would be strongly influenced if there is robust empirical and scientific evidence that one political party’s policies are associated with important outcomes. The outcomes I’ll be considering here are in regard to life, death, health and illness. There are a few types of evidence to consider. At a basic level, if Democratic policies are superior to Republican policies, we would expect to see a robust correlation between liberal policies and health and wellbeing. Ideally, we would also know how different policies have better or worse effects. In other words, a correlation is great, but we would also want evidence that liberal policies cause better outcomes, and the correlation isn’t due to other factors like liberal places being wealthier (for example). 

This can all be pretty difficult for scientists to work out. We don’t do experiments where we randomly assign policies or political leadership. When political leadership correlates with so many important things, like wealth, educational outcomes, geography, and history, it can be difficult to disentangle how health is related to policy. But the scientists who study this use sophisticated methods and go through rigorous peer review processes to come to humanity’s best understanding of these issues. As a young policy scholar, I welcome corrections and notes from policy experts who take issue with any of my analysis throughout this article. With all that said, what follows is my attempt to evaluate the scientific evidence about whether US-based liberal vs conservative policies are better for physical and mental health.

Which party’s policies are associated with health and well-being?

We are in our third year of a global pandemic which has killed 6.3 million worldwide and 1 million in the US alone. This situation provided an important test case of how different policy approaches resulted in different outcomes. One difference between the two parties during the pandemic was how they responded to public health guidance. Republican leaders were less likely to promote mask wearing and vaccination. People who listened to and endorsed Trump were less likely to receive vaccinations. These differences in messaging mattered. Republicans in general were less likely to engage in social distancing to reduce spread and less likely to be vaccinated relative to their liberal counterparts. But there were also policy differences beyond messaging. Areas of the country that rolled out liberal policies like shutdowns and mask mandates ultimately had lower numbers of COVID-19 infections which likely saved lives. Medicaid expansion also reduced COVID-19 cases when re-openings occurred and likely mitigated risks to low income families. On the other hand, conservative voting restriction legislation (no doubt unintentionally) resulted in higher county-level COVID cases and mortality rates during voting seasons. A review of the relevant research is pretty clear, liberal policies are associated with better health outcomes during the pandemic: lower case numbers and less deaths.

Let’s set aside the current COVID pandemic (and likely future pandemics) though and consider health more broadly. What do researchers find when they evaluate the differences in health outcomes between liberal and conservative areas of the country? There are many studies here that all point in the same direction. One simple but important variable to consider here is mortality rate, or how often people die in the population over time. More specifically, researchers focus on “age-adjusted mortality rates” because differences in population age can significantly influence how much people die. 

A very recent study using data from 99% of the US population found that age-adjusted mortality rates are different across counties depending on if they are liberal or conservative. The age adjustment is important, because liberals are, in general, younger than conservatives. The research team evaluated mortality across five presidential elections, from 2000 to 2019. Fortunately, they found that health outcomes have been improving across the board in Democratic counties and Republic counties (Go Science!). But their main findings compared Democratic to Republican areas and found that the improvements were not equally distributed. There was a growing gap in mortality such that Democratic counties had increasingly lower age-adjusted mortality relative to Republican counties. Further, they found that the pattern was consistent across different identity groups (race, ethnicity, urban-rural location, sex). The gap between Republican and Democratic counties grew six-fold from 2001 to 2019, mostly due to changes in deaths due to “heart disease, cancer, lower respiratory tract diseases, unintentional injuries, and suicide.”

Again this is just one of many studies on this topic. This paper cites half a dozen other studies by different research groups converging on similar conclusions. A 2021 paper found that Republican counties have had lower increases in life expectancy over time. Which was a continuation of a trend found in a 2020 paper which found that if US states adopted more liberal policies (more economic regulations and protections of marginalized groups) on average women would live 2.8 years longer and men would live 2.1 years longer. This just replicates a 2017 paper finding that Trump 2016 votes coincide with declining or stagnating life expectancy. Ironically, other researchers suggest that these declines in healthcare are associated with subsequent increases in vote shares for Trump and the Republican party, the very group that rejects policies that would alleviate health declines.

If you are politically inclined to dismiss these findings, you might be thinking, “well sure, it’s because Democratic counties are more urban/wealthy/educated, this is all just correlational!” Fortunately, experts in these areas check those sorts of other explanations. The findings I have discussed very often account for such things as best they can by including these factors in their statistical models. Many of the models also evaluate changes over time so that they can see how policy shifts precede shifts in health and well-being. But we need not only rely on correlational papers, there is more research that tries to evaluate the mechanisms or reasons why liberal policies lead to better health outcomes. 

On the topic of mortality, liberal gun policies are associated with lower suicide rates and lower numbers of mass shootings. For health more broadly, another large study using data from all 50 states across 10 years found that progressive tax structures used to fund generous education spending and lenient welfare programs predicted improvements to population health. These programs counteract the negative health consequences of inequality through government programs like unemployment, worker’s comp, public assistance programs, disability programs, educational spending, and financial aid for low income people. One particular set of studies focused on LGB folks (they didn’t investigate trans people) really exemplifies why liberal policies outperform conservative policies in terms of health and wellbeing. The 2014 study found that liberal LGB protections like anti-discrimination laws, gay marriage rights, and hate crime statutes prevent mental health issues. LGB folks in liberal areas with these protections were about 2.5 times less likely to have mental health issues

This is really what the mechanism is: harm reduction. Liberal policies, for all their flaws and imperfections, reduce harm much more than their conservative alternatives. With more protections for people and stronger safety nets, people can weather difficult times using government services, they can avoid harmful discrimination, they can access healthcare, and they can get a quality education. All of this results in a healthier and happier population of people that live longer lives. Public policy folks know this. A 2021 Lancet review of Trump-era conservative health policies extensively documented the utter failure of conservative policies to maintain or improve health from 2016 through 2020.

Many liberal policies are not the BEST, they’re just better than their conservative alternatives

And yet, all of this does not suggest that liberal policies are the pinnacle of human society. Experts know what needs to be done, and it often extends beyond what Democrats and American liberal politics has on offer. For example, the ACA (American Care Act or “Obama Care”) and Medicaid expansion helped the US progress towards goals around AIDS prevention and treatment, but it hasn’t been enough. Similarly, we know how to address the factors that underlie racial disparities in health, but liberals have not made these changes a priority. The obvious systemic change we need is universal healthcare, but this policy was still not part of the Democratic party platform in 2020. We are the only high-income nation without a universal healthcare system and we lag behind other countries in our healthcare outcomes and affordability. Contrary to the findings of some (often conservative) analyses, a recent systematic review of a wide array of fiscal analyses of a single-payer healthcare system found the projected costs are entirely feasible. The fact that both political parties refuse to support this evidence-based policy doesn’t change how effective it would be. We should not feel constrained by the current zeitgeist of our political system when thinking about what is best for our country.

Nevertheless, until we reform the two party system or a viable third party emerges, every two years we will have a decision to make. Very often we will have to choose between a liberal and a conservative, a Republican and a Democrat. The choice is really about who we want our adversaries in public office to be. Do we want a conservative who is against government programs generally, or a liberal who can be more easily lobbied to support effective public policy? We should keep in mind the empirical, demonstrable, and robust findings that relative to conservative policies, liberal policies save lives, increase life spans, decrease illness, slowed the pandemic, improve mental health, decrease suicides, and on and on. Politics is full of flashy and noisy distractions, but this is a clear evidence-based signal though all that noise.

“Grooming” discourse will make sex abuse prevention harder

Conservatives have started calling their political opponents “groomers.” This term is shorthand for an accusation of sexualizing children or grooming them for sexual advances. The term has been used by online extremists since at least last year, but it has gone mainstream more recently as conservative writers have started using the term to defend Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, HB 1557. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ press secretary described the bill as an Anti-grooming bill, and said that if you’re against the bill, “you are probably a groomer.”

In some ways “groomer” is different from previous political terms used by conservatives particularly because it is so extreme. It aligns well with false extremist conspiracy theories around sex trafficking that fueled the Pizzagate shooting and the Wayfair conspiracy theory. The label is also much closer to an accusation of a crime. For example, while “grooming” is not a crime per se, it is often mentioned in indictments of sex abuse, sex trafficking, and child molestation crimes. By using this term, conservatives are tapping into extremely emotive source of fear and hatred. Child abusers are hated and dehumanized to such an extent that they are known to be beaten and killed by their fellow prisoners. In fact, many Americans support the death penalty for sexual molestation of a child. In other words, this rhetoric links LGBT people and their liberal allies to one of the worst things imaginable, which could easily be used to justify partisan violence and escalate polarization.

However, setting aside the dark political implications, the “groomer” discourse is also doing major damage to the important work of preventing child sexual abuse. Something similar happened when the QAnon conspiracy #SaveTheChildren campaign disrupted real anti-sex trafficking efforts. The people working in this space describe how these lurid conspiracy theories overshadowed real efforts by spreading misinformation and politicizing anti-sex trafficking work. Myths and misinformation about human trafficking have led to vital services being clogged up with false allegations. These myths have also shifted attention to conspiratorial political cabals instead of where sex abuse actually takes place: in high adversity areas and often by care takers.

To the extent that this conservative push to fight “grooming” is truly animated by a desire to help children, it is sadly likely to have the opposite effect.

In a similar manner, the “groomer” discourse overshadows real issues in the world. First, it perpetuates myths about LGBT people. One such myth is that LGBT people are more likely to engage in sexual misconduct with a child. The truth is that children are no more likely to be molested by a homosexual person relative to a heterosexual person (after controlling for the fact that there are far more heterosexual people). Another myth is that trans and homosexual identities are somehow inherently sexualizing or obscene while cis and heterosexual identities are not. Of course, these myths just further the existing stigma and discrimination faced by sexual and gender minorities. 

The groomer discourse also overshadows evidence-based approaches to addressing child sexual abuse. One of the common refrains from people who support HB 1557 is “keep sex out of the classroom.” Unfortunately, if this were translated into a policy, it would be the exact policy that would exacerbate sexual abuse by keeping children unprepared and ignorant of how to respond to advances made by sexual abusers. Meta-analyses of child sexual abuse prevention studies have demonstrated that children in pre-school and elementary benefit from learning about sexual abuse concepts and self-protection skills. A retrospective study found that girls who haven’t participated in child sexual abuse prevention programs were about twice as likely to have experienced sexual abuse. Importantly, these trainings often involve explicit conversations about sex that go far beyond the simple explanations of homosexuality and trans identities that animated the Florida law and its defenders. For example, one training program for preschoolers (performed by parents or teachers) involved discussions of genitalia, where it is located, and how to identify inappropriate touching. To the extent that this conservative push to fight “grooming” is truly driven by a desire to help children, it is sadly likely to have the opposite effect.

The conservative push to “keep sex out of the classroom” has prevented sex education for decades. This blanket ban of sexual education has possibly exacerbated teen pregnancy rates particularly when the more conservative abstinence-only education doesn’t work. HB 1557 operates as a ban on LGBT issues being mentioned in the classroom but this has been the general approach in sex education settings. Only 15 states require the inclusion of sexual orientation and 5 of those states require negative information (e.g. “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public”). Kids at schools with LGBT-inclusive curriculum also tend to experience less homophobia, so bans like HB 1557 will likely exacerbate LGBT bigotry. 

Sexual abuse, LGBT discrimination, teen pregnancy are all major problems. Unfortunately, all of these problems are likely to be made worse by laws like HB 1557 and the right wing approach to label LGBT people and their liberal allies “groomers.” Solving these problems requires an evidence-based approach in identifying the real problems and their solutions. Laws like HB 1557 will only be another divisive obstacle in solving these problems that draws us away from the evidence-based solutions. There is no evidence that LGBT inclusive sex education will “groom” kids to be easier to sexually abuse. In fact, the evidence goes in the other direction: Inclusive and evidence-based sex education is a vital part in preventing sexual abuse, anti-LGBT sentiment, and teen pregnancy. 

Unlearning the Learning Styles Myth

Belief in “learning styles” is widespread despite there being no compelling scientific evidence for the theory. Read more on the problems with learning styles, how widespread beliefs in learning styles are, and why these beliefs persists.

Are you a visual learner? You know, someone who needs to see a diagram or picture to really learn something. Or maybe you’re an auditory learner? I mean, you are always listening to podcasts and audiobooks, right? Maybe you’re a kinesthetic learner, because you like to play sports and garden? 

If you were a student in the last five decades, you probably took a quiz (like this one) ostensibly designed to determine your learning style. Your teacher’s quiz probably had you respond to items like:
“I want to learn how to play a new board game or card game. I would:” 

  1. Read the instructions.
  2. Listen to somebody explaining it and ask questions.
  3. Use the diagrams that explain the various stages, moves and strategies.
  4. Watch others play the game before joining in. 

As someone who taught high school for a few years before graduate school, I can tell you that my fellow teachers and I were taught to consider learning styles. In 2009, I was trained to think of students as having a preferred learning style that reflects how they need to be taught in order to be most successful in academia. Furthermore, I was taught that a good way to teach is to figure out the learning styles of your students and construct assignments, lessons, and assessments that appeal to their individualized learning styles. So, in my first year of class, I administered a learning styles quiz and taught my students that they are a specific type of learner based on their quiz results.

This reflects the two underlying assumptions of  the “learning styles” approach. First, students have a stable learning style that doesn’t change much over time and can be determined using a questionnaire. Second, students learn better if they are taught (or if they learn on their own) using their preferred learning style. 

Unfortunately, there are many problems with this approach. First and foremost, there has never been strong empirical evidence supporting the above assumptions about learning styles. This is the conclusion of a 2009 review of the scientific evidence and the conclusion of another review completed in 2015. A separate 2015 article focused on the two assumptions of the learning styles approach (i.e., learning styles are stable and measured with questionnaires, and they improve achievement). Is there evidence that the visual learners of today will be the visual learners of tomorrow, or in more technical language, are learning style questionnaires “reliable”? The answer from the review: No. Learning styles are not consistent for most people. A learner may be categorized as a visual learner today and take the same assessment a month later and be categorized differently. What about the second assumption that learners perform better when their lessons are matched to their style? Decades of research revealed “no viable evidence to support the theory.” It is for these reasons that learning styles are frequently described as a “neuromyth” in some of the current education research on the topic.

Of course, “there is no evidence” is generally a great reason to cast aside an idea. But, lacking evidence isn’t the only problem with belief in learning styles, there are potential harms. One potential source of harm is that learning styles may reinforce an essentialist view of students’ learning abilities as fatalistically fixed. Essentialism also tends to carry with it the assumption that fixed differences are genetically inherited and are rooted in brain differences. A recent study found that about half of people who believe in learning styles hold fairly essentialist views. Importantly, an essentialist view runs counter to maintaining a “growth mindset” where students are seen as capable of making significant improvements to their intelligence and academic performance, a perspective that is associated with academic improvement

Beyond the empirical and essentialist problems with the learning styles approach, there are more hidden costs. The learning styles approach is a fruitless blind alley that many teachers invest time, money, and effort into when those resources would be better spent on evidence-based approaches. As a first year teacher, I took up a significant portion of a class administering a survey and painstakingly walking through the “learning styles” concept. I also pigeon-holed students with “individualized” assignments that increased their chances of primarily getting one specific type of lesson instead of receiving a wider variety of approaches in their education. Though, I didn’t do this as much as I could have since it is exceedingly difficult and time consuming to individualize to that level. 

Despite the clear status of learning styles as a non-evidence-based and non-scientific idea, the concept is alive and well among members of the public, educators, and shockingly, among researchers. Around 80-95% of the general public and educators in Western, industrialized countries endorse the learning styles myth. A 2020 study found that 89% of over 15,000 educators from 18 countries, spanning 2009 to 2020, reported believing in teaching students based on their learning styles. While there aren’t similar surveys of beliefs among education researchers, a 2015 review of higher education research found that 89% of recently published research papers on learning styles “implicitly or explicitly endorsed the use of learning styles in higher education”. It’s hard to imagine that so many pro-learning styles academic papers could be published without significant levels of personal belief in learning styles among academics. 

Why is the belief in learning styles still so prevalent? In some ways this is the same question we find ourselves increasingly asking in an era filled with misinformation, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience: Why are beliefs in false and incorrect ideas so prevalent? As with many widely believed falsehoods, there are structural reasons behind misinformation. In the case of learning styles, researcher and school psychologist Dr. William Furey has written about how 29 states require new teachers to be tested on learning styles in order to be accredited. Twenty-one of those states require teachers to complete a “test of instructional knowledge” created by the Educational Testing Service (ETS)  which asks questions pertaining to learning styles. Dr. Furey points out how this incentivizes perpetuating the myth, because you need to know learning styles to pass through the accreditation process. Worse, the inclusion of this debunked concept in the education curriculum pulls time and effort away from evidence-based teaching methods. He bolsters his case by citing a National Council on Teacher Quality’s textbook evaluation, which found that 59% of textbooks do not mention the six highest-impact teaching methods (yet advocate planning instruction around learning styles). 

Beyond these structural issues, learning styles appeal to our intuitive perceptions of ourselves and others. It seems like people tend to be better at some things over others. It makes sense that matching a person with what they prefer would make them more successful. We generally struggle to understand how behavior emerges from the complex interactions between our biology and our environments. Learning styles are another appealing overly simplified categorizing system, like astrological signsMyers-Briggs personality types, and whatever sigma, alpha, and beta males are. Unfortunately, these categorization systems aren’t supported by evidence and can even lead to harmful consequences.  

Originally published on The Pipette Pen and peer edited by Victoria Hope Williams

Symmetrical Politics, Asymmetrical Marginalization

Similar tendencies on the political left and right have different consequences on marginalized communities.

This article is written by Manuel Galvan and Dr. Jake Womick

Are liberalism and conservatism associated with unique psychological tendencies and behaviors? Or are the extreme left and right mirror images of each other? The political psychology literature sometimes characterizes this question in terms of ideological symmetry vs. asymmetry. According to the asymmetric perspective, the two political ideologies result from different motivations and satisfy different psychological needs. For example, there may be an asymmetry such that conservatism is associated with less flexible thinking and liberalism is associated with more warmth in people’s interpersonal relationships (Figure 1, top). In contrast, the symmetric perspective suggests that the same psychological motives and needs drive people to political extremes, whether it is to the right or the left of the political spectrum. Using the same example from before, this perspective would suggest that extremists on both sides are less flexible and less warm in their interpersonal relationships (Figure 1, bottom). The symmetric perspective is often referred to as the “horseshoe theory,” a term attributed to the French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye, because the far-right and far-left closely resemble each other, analogous to the ends of a horseshoe. 

Ideological Asymmetry and Symmetry Hypotheses

Irrespective of the terms used to describe these two theoretical perspectives, people’s perceptions of conservatism and liberalism as symmetrical or asymmetrical colors their perception of the political landscape. For example, if you see the two political parties as essentially the same with only minor differences in what shirts are worn at political rallies or what slogans are shouted at political opponents, then you might not see a reason to choose one over the other in the voting booth. If both parties are equally irrational or biased, you might perceive outrage from one side on issue X as equally valid as outrage from the other side on issue Y. Thinking through the similarities and differences between political parties can be an important part of making up your mind about your own ideological perspectives and participating in the voting process.

As with many debates in the social sciences, one can point to different research to find evidence for either the symmetry or asymmetry perspective. Researchers often describe political symmetry or asymmetry in terms of cognitive dimensions (i.e., how people think) and affective polarization (i.e., how people feel about their ideological opponents). Asymmetry proponents often cite research finding that unique psychological variables predict political conservatism. For example, the need to reduce uncertainty and ambiguity, to experience order and closure (i.e., definitive knowledge on something), and to defend one’s status are correlated with political conservatism. Conservatism is also argued to be built upon a distinct set of moral foundations–which includes purity, sanctity, and in-group loyalty–compared to liberalism. Indeed there is a rich history of investigating the psychological profile of conservatism as associated with emphasizing tradition, conformity, security, power and achievement, having more rigid thinking, and perceiving the world as more threatening and dangerous, but also see the inequalities of the world as more justified

While this first body of research suggests that liberals and conservatives are quite distinct, there is a second body of research that challenges these data and proposes that liberals and conservatives engage in many of the same cognitive biases. Is dogmatism really a feature of the political right if extremists on both sides of the political spectrum feel superior about their beliefs? Why is it that supposedly open-minded liberals are similarly motivated to avoid exposure to opinions from the other side? Liberals and conservatives also engage in motivated disbelief in politically convenient ways. Both sides find it equally difficult to identify flaws in arguments from the other side and struggle to find the flaws in their own ideological arguments. A recent meta-analysis of 51 experimental studies showed that both liberals and conservatives tend to evaluate identical information more favorably when it is consistent with their beliefs and preferences.

This second body of research supports the symmetry perspective and suggests a similarity in the cognitive profiles of those who identify as liberal vs. conservative, with those on the extreme ends of the political spectrum showing the same kind of inflexibility. Researchers also found consistencies in how ideologically-driven humans engage those with whom they disagree. For example, research consistent with the symmetry hypothesis shows that liberals and conservatives both report prejudice against their ideological opponents. Put simply, those on the left and right hate each other to similar degrees. However, much of this research hasn’t taken into consideration the implications of such prejudice. The demographic compositions of one’s political opponents are quite different, depending on whether you are on the left or right. Voters who identify as Republican are more homogeneously white, wealthy, male, Protestant and older. Democratic voters are a more diverse group, composed of most of the country’s Black, Hispanic and Asian voters, most of the college and postgraduate educated voters, most of the Jews and Hispanic Catholics, and the majority of LGBT folks. Thus, while it may be true that both groups engage in discrimination or prejudice against their ideological opponents, the targets of that prejudice are quite different.

Because of their respective demographic makeups, when conservatives hate liberals, they are holding prejudices against historically marginalized groups and the policies they support. When liberals hate conservatives, they are holding prejudices against groups that wield disproportionate power in society. This dynamic may partly explain why researchers do not find ideological symmetry in racism, sexism, homophobia, or any form of prejudice towards a group based on immutable characteristics. Conservatism is uniquely linked to more racial resentment, more sexist attitudes, and more homophobic attitudes. Conversely, claims of anti-white, anti-man, and anti-straight biases and their link to liberalism remain unsubstantiated. Although these biases may very well exist, they are not situated in the context of historical and systemic inequalities that amplify the consequences of bias toward historically marginalized groups.

Clearly, understanding similarities and differences between those on the political left and right is complex. After reviewing all of the evidence, can we definitively say whether liberals and conservatives are psychologically asymmetrical vs. symmetrical? The answer is not straightforward. In some ways, we find evidence of symmetry; and, in others we find evidence of asymmetry. We have seen that liberals and conservatives both fall prey to the same kinds of biases. Those on the left and right also show the same kinds of prejudices against their ideological opponents. Yet, due to differences in the demographic composition of these groups, the consequences of these prejudices are asymmetrical. In other words, there is evidence of asymmetrical marginalization such that conservatives, relative to liberals, will be more likely to hold biases against people from marginalized backgrounds and their views.

As we continue to advance our understanding of politics and partisanship, we must keep these complexities in mind. We must focus on understanding the asymmetrical downstream consequences that arise from symmetrical cognitive and interpersonal biases. Because the prejudice partisans hold towards each other implicates different groups, it may be that such animosity arises from different underlying motives and needs on the left vs. right. For instance, if those on the left indeed show anti-white, anti-man, and anti-heterosexual biases, these may stem from an interest in advancing an egalitarian redistribution of power and wealth in society. Or, they may simply reflect an intolerance of perceived intolerance. In contrast, the animosity held by those on the political right towards historically marginalized groups may arise from zero-sum beliefs, where attempts to increase equality are seen as “unfairly taking” from those who have a privileged status now. This is consistent with research showing that perceptions of anti-white discrimination are due to seeing racial biases as zero-sum, such that white Americans see falling bias against Black people as a sign of rising bias against White people. It is clear that there is still much to learn about the psychology of politics. As we embark on advancing our scientific understanding of these issues, we must keep in mind the reality of asymmetrical marginalization and leverage these insights to build a more equitable, fair, and just society.

Originally posted on The Pipette Pen and edited by Jeanne-Maria McPherson

Does Unfettered Free-Speech Predict Media Trust?

The above tweets (and meme) were published as part of a larger social problem of what to do about the proliferation of misinformation.  These tweets have many embedded and interrelated arguments. I’m going to focus on just one of these arguments, namely, that “censorship undermines media trust.” There is an obvious truth to this argument: authoritarian censorship undermines trust in the media. But, there is a different implicit argument: unfettered free-speech will promote trust in the media. What follows is my attempt to look for evidence for this argument. 

There have been calls for platforms like Spotify and Substack to reign in COVID related misinformation. The issue of whether tech companies should administer editorial oversight or content regulation has become yet another partisan issue. But again, this is in the broader context of an incredible explosion in the capacity to reach an audience of millions with little to no expertise or editorial oversight. Since the invention of the printing press in the 1400s and the evolution of newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV, there has generally been editorial oversight. People with educational qualification, journalistic experience and/or ethical responsibilities, or otherwise, have regulated the extent to which ideas could reach large audiences. This new era of new media content is a historically unprecedented inflection point in our cultural evolution, where an audience of millions is only a few viral stories away. I mention this context to immediately note that our perception of media and its relationship to free-speech is likely far from straight forward

Nevertheless, a simple straightforward idea like “unfettered free-speech predicts trust in media” can be imperfectly investigated using a straightforward analysis. Upon encountering this argument, I went looking for data that would speak to it’s veracity. I looked for data on how much people trust the media in a variety of countries and then looked for data that might “explain” the cross country differences in media trust. I should make a pedantic note that I cannot draw causal conclusions from these data, so I use “explain” in the correlational sense. I’m just looking at what factors are associated with cross country differences in media trust. If the causal narrative that “unfettered free-speech predicts media trust” is true, I would expect to find that factors related to free-speech would predict media trust. I found data on free speech preferences, human freedom, press freedom, polarization, inequality, and anti-vax conspiracy beliefs. Below I describe all the data and then run a couple simple correlations. I also have provided all the data here

Of course, we should take the findings with a grain of salt. No simple collection of data will completely model the massive sociological problem we are facing related to free-speech, censorship, and media trust. Those caveats stated, let’s take a look at some data that may inform us about how free-speech, censorship, and media trust relate to one another in 2022. 

Are higher degrees of free-speech support, free speech access, and free press conditions associated with more media trust? Let’s see.

Data point 1: Media Trust

As shown in the meme above, one relevant bit of data that is circulating on social media is a study purportedly showing that the US ranked dead last among 46 countries as having the least trustworthy media. This data comes from a report released by the Reuters institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford. It surveys 92 thousand people in 46 countries. I want to see what other data explains the ranking of trust in news media.

Data Point 2: Free speech support

Compared to other countries around the world, US citizens are the most supportive of free speech, according to a Pew Research analysis from 2016. Maybe countries with a lot of free-speech support would trust the news media more.

This level of support for free-speech reflects our fairly loose restrictions on free-speech. For example, unlike most other countries, the US lacks restrictions on hate speech. Of course, there isn’t a perfect correlation between free-speech support and actual free-speech as evidenced by the Polish government which has arrested LGBT activists, and people who insult monuments. Even in the US, there are obscenity laws that prevent the freedom to say certain words and display certain images on radio, TV, and newspapers.

Fortunately, there are other data sources to evaluate the degree to which we have free speech in the US relative to other countries. 

Data Points 3-5: Personal Freedom, Economic Freedom, and Human Freedom

Two think tanks, the libertarian Cato Institute and conservative and libertarian Fraser Institute produce an annual report on their global measure of “personal, civil, and economic freedom” which grades countries along 82 distinct indicators of “freedom.” Relevant to my investigation is their indexing of freedom of association, assembly and civil society, freedom of expression and information. They quantify these complex societal variables into 2 unique indexes: Personal freedom, and economic freedom. Both of which are combined to create a “human freedom” index. To state the obvious, these measures are certainly imperfect, but they are some relevant data points related to actual freedom people have in society, rather than just the stated preferences people have toward free speech. Maybe these measures will help us explain the degree to which people distrust the media.

Data point 6: Press Freedom

The French International NGO Reporters Without Borders has its own annual report on press freedom; the World Press Freedom Index. This index is designed to measure a country’s press freedom by evaluating seven criteria: media pluralism (if there are a variety of opinions represented), environmental and self-censorship, legislative frameworks, transparency, infrastructure, abuses, and media independence. Higher numbers indicate less freedom. They rely on the input of many experts to create this index. Surely where countries fall on the World Press Freedom Index would predict some of why people distrust the media. 

Light yellow  = most freedom of the press, Black = Least freedom of the press

Data points 7-9: Polarization

The UK based marketing research company Ipsos MORI evaluated the extent to which the world had grown more polarized across 27 countries in 2018. Specifically for my investigation, I looked at their data on whether participants thought that people in their countries were more (or less) divided than they were ten years ago, and a second question on whether they thought people were tolerant to those “with different backgrounds, cultures, or views.” I sought out polarization data because polarization is often cited as one of the most relevant factors related to media distrust by political scientists. Maybe this explains the media distrust we are seeing?

Data point 10: GINI coefficient

The GINI coefficient is a measure of economic inequality where higher values indicate greater economic inequality, such that the rich have a higher proportion of income relative to the rest of the society. I added this variable to my dataset to see if inequality is related to media distrust, as has been suggested in the literature on this topic.

Data point 11: Anti-Vaccine conspiracy theory beliefs

YouGov and the Cambridge Globalism Project teamed up in 2020 to interview 22,000 people in 21 countries to estimate beliefs in conspiracy theories. I took data from a single question about the extent to which people believe that “harmful side effects of vaccines are hidden from the public.” Maybe this kind of misinformation is related to media distrust. 

So, what story is there to tell with all of these data?

Let’s take a look at a simple correlation table among the variables we are using to relate to media distrust. Many of the relations make sense. For example, support for free-speech correlates well with personal freedom and more press freedom (remember low free_press = more freedom). The three indexes of freedom from Cato correlate well with the free-press index from Reporters Without Borders. These correlations are reassuring; the variables are relating to each other the way we would expect. On the other hand, surprisingly, support for freedom of speech is correlated to a perception of being more divided now than 10 years ago. 

Importantly, these effects aren’t due to the US being an outlier, they aren’t meaningfully different when the US is removed.

So, how do these variables predict media distrust?

Well… they don’t. None of them even correlate with media distrust. To some extent this is probably related to the relatively small sample size, but the direction of the relationships are also backwards. Media distrust has a non-significant negative correlation with free-speech preferences, and free-speech freedoms.

So what?

What conclusions can we draw from this collection of statistically non-significant findings? In some sense, it evidences my original point: This stuff is complicated and none of these variables are sufficiently capturing the dynamics that explain media distrust. Remember, the implicit argument is that “unmitigated free-speech promotes media trust.” But we looked at data representing the degree to which free-speech is mitigated and we looked at data representing media trust and found them to be uncorrelated. This doesn’t disprove anything, but it also doesn’t offer supporting evidence for an argument that is being proffered so vehemently. The fact that the non-significant correlations trend in the opposite direction is also quite interesting. Maybe countries that allow more unmitigated free-speech will have a more difficult time tamping down on misinformation that could damage public trust in media, government, and medicine during a global pandemic? Likely, there is a bunch of complex stuff going on all at once and simple narratives about what does and doesn’t undermine or promote media distrust are likely to be, well, oversimplifying. Clearly a more principled and extensive investigation is necessary to fully flesh out the associations here. 

As stated in the beginning, surely authoritarian censorship will degrade media trust, but that is an extreme case. Authoritarian censorship isn’t really relevant to the state of free-speech in the democratic developed world. Instead we have a constantly evolving media ecosystem in which each country has negotiated a set of laws that protect free speech as one of many freedoms to consider. Would more strict rules, terms of service, or even laws regulating free-speech make people distrust the media more? Well, some countries that have more regulations have more trust in their media, not less. In the data I looked at, free-speech and media distrust seem fairly unrelated to one another, at least among democratic societies. Then again, maybe the US is a unique context where it would be particularly hard to reign in speech without exacerbating existing distrust. In the end we don’t know. But we should strive to not get overly attached to narratives stated with such certainty and without evidence.

Cursed Scientific Prophecies: Accurately Predicting the Future and Being Ignored

Scientists warned policy makers about a global pandemic for years, and we were still unprepared. What other predictions are scientists making that we should be reacting to?

In the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon, Cassandra, the princess of Troy, is given the ability to see into the future but is cursed to never be believed. In the tragedy, Cassandra knows of the impending doom of all she holds dear, her own life, the lives of her family, and indeed Troy itself. But she was powerless to stop it. No matter how much she implored those around her towards action… she was ignored.

The story of Cassandra can be seen as an allegory for actionable knowledge that, for one reason or another, is ignored to tragic ends. This dynamic of ignoring accurate predictions of the future is more prevalent now than ever before. In the 21st century, people don’t pay much attention to dodgy prophecies from temperamental gods or elaborate spooky rituals. Instead, the world has millions of the best and brightest scientists making predictions based on empirical evidence, complex technology, and scientific consensus. Our predictive ability has gotten humans to the moon, has prevented hundreds of deadly diseases, and has made it possible for me to easily share this thought with you now. Yet, the curse of Cassandra lives on and we, as a result, all live in our own modern tragedy. 

In the early days of 2020, our lives changed irrevocably when a highly contagious novel coronavirus started spreading around the globe. A year later there have been 574,00 excess deaths in the US as the result of this pandemic, and globally over 3.1 million deaths have been attributed to COVID-19. This happened in the final year of the Trump administration. Two years prior to the pandemic, the Trump administration disbanded the pandemic response team (though some team members were reassigned to other roles). The pandemic response team was put together by the Obama administration explicitly in anticipation of a global pandemic.

Of course, President Obama didn’t have the gift of prophecy, he was reacting to other infectious diseases that impacted the US and the world during his presidency, H1N1, Ebola, SARS, and ZIKA. While none of these 4 diseases became as big of a problem as the novel Coronavirus–in terms of number of deaths or infectivity–they signaled the possibility of a global pandemic. But decades before the slow reactions of politicians, scientists had been sounding the alarm.

For example, in the mid-1980s a leading influenza vaccine researcher named Edwin Kilbourne participated in a virology conference, and proposed a highly contagious virus with scary properties–actually far worse than those of the coronavirus–that would wreak havoc on the globe. 30 years later, prophecies of a global pandemic reached a fever pitch in the 2010s. But, a consensus had been building for years in the public health and virology community that a virus with the right characteristics to lead to a global pandemic will inevitably emerge. Experts implored us to get prepared right away. 

“Agamemnon is coming! Troy will fall and we will all die unless we do something now!” said the prophets.

South Korea showing what happens when science-based policy is implemented

And some did listen! There are plenty of success stories from countries who successfully navigated the global pandemic by heeding scientific expertise. Some countries, like New Zealand and South Korea, are all but back to normal (minus the usual influx of tourists) while comparably wealthy countries like the US and the UK continue to have massive spikes of infections. In other words, some saw past the curse and escaped Troy, while some are still not listening to reason as Troy burns down around them.

But the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is just a very obvious example of the much larger problem. There is a curse on science, where scientific consensus emerges that identifies a problem and solutions to that problem and then these prophecies go unheeded. I will quickly explore two general types of cursed scientific prophecies. The first category– the “easy problems”–of cursed scientific prophecies are of an almost banal nonpartisan nature. The second category–the “hard problems”–are those prophecies that found willful partisan political opposition. 

The “Easy” Problems

Food waste is worse in rich countries

Food waste

An estimated 40% of food that is grown in the US for consumption is wasted. This is the equivalent of about 1,250 calories per day per American, or 400 pounds of food per person annually. This is a tragic injustice given that an estimated 37 million (1 out of every 9) Americans experience food insecurity. It is an environmental tragedy as well, accounting for more than one quarter of total freshwater consumption, and roughly 300 million barrels of oil per year. There is a scientific consensus that A) this is a massive problem and B) the solutions are known. Nevertheless, progress to solve the problem of food waste remains slow.

Antibiotic resistance is on the rise

Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance occurs when disease-causing microorganisms (i.e. bacteria and fungi) evolve the ability to survive treatment from antibiotic drugs designed to kill them. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development”. This danger has been discussed as early as 1945 when Alexander Fleming raised the alarm, and the problem has only worsened. To some extent, resistance is naturally occurring, but it is exacerbated by sparse regulations in many countries, inappropriate prescribing, and overuse in agriculture. These issues continue, despite WHO guidance on how to prevent and control the spread of antibiotic resistance.  

To be clear, I don’t think these are “easy” problems in that solving them would be simple and quick. Rather, I mean that they are problems that a) have been documented for decades, b) have readily available solutions that are under-utilized, and c) do not have an obvious political or ideological opposition (debatably at least). These problems may not create the attention-grabbing headlines they deserve, but they don’t exist in some political or scientific grey area; these problems are widely acknowledged. Nor do solutions require a vast renegotiation of the political system. And yet, over the decades, scientists raising the alarm (and providing solutions) simply hasn’t led to the resolution one would expect of a constructive society that reacts to actionable scientific knowledge. Sadly, it only gets worse from here. If these “easy” problems seem difficult to address, imagine the difficulty that emerges when those in power disagree on whether the problems even exist or deserve to be addressed. In other words, think of how much more intractable these problems become when they are politicized.

The “Hard” (Politicized) Problems

Environmental degradation is happening on many levels

Environmental degradation

This is a massive subject that I will quickly overview by noting several “sub-crises” under this umbrella.

Greenhouse Emissions

The vast majority (estimating the exact percentage is a bit complicated) of scientists agree that climate change is human-caused as a result of the explosion of greenhouse gas emissions (and other human activities). While the impacts of climate change on sea-levelsocean acidityhuman healthweather, and food production (to name a few) are open areas of research, there is a consensus (as articulated by the Global Commission on Adaptation) that the response from the world’s governments are “gravely insufficient”.

Plastic pollution

There is a consensus that the estimated 4.8 – 12.7 million metric tons of plastic added to the oceans annually is having a devastating effect already and will cause irreparable harm to the world’s ecosystems. This is a global problem that no one country can solve on it’s own, which has led scientists to call on policy makers to form international alliances to address this problem, a step that has not been taken by the US or the UK.

Biodiversity loss

We are living through the 6th mass extinction event in the earth’s history, but this time it is largely due to human activity. The extinction rate of species is hundreds or thousands of times faster than the estimated “background” rate seen over the last tens of millions of years. A recent UN report describes the “overwhelming evidence” of this “ominous picture” and provides a road map of the “transformative change” needed to address this issue.


Again, this is a massive topic with a mountain of research on a global level, within specific countries and within specific communities around the world. I will provide only a brief summary of poverty in the US. We know that child poverty costs around $1 trillion per year, unstable housing will cost an estimated $111 billion over the next ten years, the cost of food insecurity alone was $178 billion in 2014, and in the year 2000 172,000 deaths could be attributed to individual- and area-level poverty.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 12% of the US population (40 million people) in the US live in poverty. But this is a low estimation. The international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), estimates that 18% of Americans (~59 million people) live in poverty (meaning they have less than half the American median income). By looking at other countries like Denmark and Finland where only 5-6% of the population is in poverty, we can see that our level of poverty is not an intrinsic aspect of human society. Indeed, of the 37 countries in the OECD, 35 of them have less relative poverty compared to the US. It is for these reasons that the US government has been called on by the UN and Human Rights Watch to address poverty. Furthermore, the American Psychological Association has made several recommendations for how to address poverty in the US, for example by raising the minimum wage (which likely will not occur in 2021).

The price we pay for high inequality


Economic inequality, meaning the size of the gap in incomes and wealth between different economic class groups, is a distinct problem to poverty that also predicts social problems. Inequality is easily seen by statistics like: 80% of the wealth in the US is held by 20% of it’s wealthiest citizens. I’ve discussed the link between inequality and health and social problems in a previous article, but the gist is that economic inequality predicts lower life expectancy, math and literacy skills, trust, and social mobility as well as higher infant mortality, homicide, imprisonment, teenage births, obesity, and mental illness. In other words, the harms of economic inequality are very clear and solutions are available. 

Curses aren’t real, so why is this happening?

As with the “easy” problems, the “hard” problems are well-understood and the solutions are readily available. However, politicization of these issues adds a deep layer of intractability to these problems. In part, politicization is to be expected because there are extremely influential vested interests in environmental and economic issues. There is a long history of corporations opposing environmental regulations intended to protect human health and the environment. Similarly, campaign contributions and lobbying can facilitate the development of pro-corporate economic policies at odds with egalitarian policies. 

Another reason for the intractability of politicized problems is ideology. In general, political conservatism in the US is related to ideals of individual freedom, private property rights, limited government, and promotion of free markets. Political liberalism in the US is related to collective rights, market regulation to protect citizens and public goods, extending rights to underprivileged groups, and expanding the social safety net. This ideological framework can explain why, research has found that conservatives tend to attribute poverty to self-indulgence and laziness, while liberals tend to view poverty as a result of a poorly functioning society. Similarly, other research has found that conservatives are more likely to tolerate and justify inequality and deny or minimize problems associated with high inequality. Liberals and conservatives tend to differ on climate change as well, such that liberals are more likely to recognize the problem and support policies that address climate change.

Every specific instance of the phenomenon we are exploring has it’s own nuanced explanation, but there are general tendencies that contribute to societies lack of response to scientific prophecies. One tendency is that humans are just not good at long-term decision-making, particularly when the risks we need to avoid are in the distant future (or in a far away place). A second tendency is that we often assume someone else will take care of a known problem (the so-called “bystander effect”). Another tendency is the sunk cost fallacy, or sticking with something that doesn’t work because we have already invested so much into it. 

To some extent scientists are responsible for science getting ignored. Setting aside the racistsexist, and homophobic roots of scientific institutions (that have sown seeds of distrust in specific communities), there have been many high profile instances of “science getting it wrong”. Granted, this is most often science journalists getting the science wrong, but scientists get things wrong as well, like during the pandemic when the public was initially told not to wear masks and then the advice shifted. There is a fuzzy dividing line between actionable solid science, and science that isn’t actionable and solid. Unlike the fictional predictions of Cassandra, the predictions of science and the proclamations of scientists are not divine Truths (with a capital T). Yet, for all their fallibility, scientific predictions–particularly those with the weight of expert consensus behind them–represent the peak of human knowledge on the subject. While these predictions may shift slowly with new scientific investigation, those of us outside of these areas of expertise are best served by humbly accepting this gift of knowledge.  

It is important to state unequivocally: science is no replacement for politics or policy-making. As recently argued by Dr. Carlo Rovelli in Nature Materials, politics requires the navigation between competing values and interests and science is not suited to replace this process. That being said, in a world without divinely granted gifts of prophecy, science is the best tool we have for predicting the future, for identifying problems in society, and for developing evidence-based solutions. Thus the default position of politicians should be to often consult with scientists and give heavy consideration to scientific evidence for or against a policy. Furthermore, policy-makers should be held to account by the public and journalists when they take policy steps that are counter to the scientific consensus. Science is the best method we have to make accurate predictions of the future and members of the public and policy-makers ignore the warnings and prophecies of science at our collective peril. We live in an age of truly awe-inspiring scientific prophesizing beyond what was anticipated by the mind that dreamed up the Princess of Troy; let us act like it.

Original posted to the Pipette Pen where it was peer edited by Aditi Kokothari

The Links Between Past Racism and Current Inequality

Racial disparities are not new; they are a continuation of the legacy of 246 years of slavery followed by 100 years of virtually no citizenship rights for Black people in North America

Racial inequality is a well-documented phenomenon in the United States. Based on polling data taken in 2019, most Americans agree that Blacks are at a disadvantage compared to whites. Those polls also show that whites and conservatives (as groups) are least likely to agree that Blacks are at a disadvantage. In a previous article, I outlined two competing narratives used to explain racial inequality between whites and Blacks. One narrative favored by the majority of liberals and Black people in the US is that historical and current discrimination is the primary cause of Black/white racial inequality. The other narrative favored primarily by conservatives and by a significant portion of the white population is that individual differences in things like cultural orientation, values, motivations, and behaviors are the primary cause of Black/white racial inequality. I outlined evidence that shows that a science-based model of the causes of inequality accepts both narratives as partly true and not mutually exclusive. In this article, I would like to cover this topic more by exploring the relevant history that precedes racial inequality. We will continue with these two competing narratives in mind. 

We have already looked at the most powerful method for investigating cause and effect: scientific experimentation. I described the experimental and empirical evidence that supports the claim that racial inequality in the US is due both to discrimination and individual differences. But there are other ways to evaluate cause and effect besides conducting experiments. One can evaluate evidence for “temporal precedence”, i.e., that the cause precedes the effect in time. For A to cause B, A must occur before B. In the case of racial inequality, there are two timelines that come from the liberal and conservative narratives. By claiming that discrimination is the cause of racial inequality, liberals are implying that discrimination precedes inequality. Alternatively, conservatives that claim individual factors like culture, values, and behavior cause racial inequality, are implying that individual factors precede racial inequality. Let’s consider the liberal perspective and then the conservative perspective. 

From a historical standpoint, current inequality is entirely consistent with previous inequality. Racial disparities are not new; they are a continuation of the legacy of 246 years of slavery followed by 100 years of virtually no citizenship rights for Black people in North America (a cumulative total of 87% of the relevant history starting in 1619). It is only in the last 54 years of US history where Black Americans have had access to rights as citizens. Yet despite these legal advances, many racial gaps have not closed in that time. It is a historical fact that the worst form of discrimination (brutal dehumanization and enslavement) preceded the inequality that Black people face today in the New World. In fact, researchers have predicted the level of implicit bias in a US geographic region today based on the per capita enslaved population in that region in 1886. Basically, the degree to which a county or state depended on slavery before the civil war predicts how much pro-white bias exists in that same region today. Not only that, but slavery was also linked to forms of contemporary structural inequality such as black poverty rates, racial segregation, and Black social mobility. This is striking empirical evidence that the legacy of slavery persists into the current era in both the structure of society and attitudes of many. Of course, since the ending of slavery there were other intervening instances of codified racism such as redlining, the practice by which Blacks were systematically discriminated against when buying a home (until it became illegal in the 70s), which still has negative effects today. In other words, we have good historical and scientific reasons to think that the timing (discrimination precedes inequality) fits the narrative that discrimination causes inequality. 

life isn’t just a foot race, it’s a relay race!

What about the conservative viewpoint that choices and cultural values precede racial inequality? Did racial inequality emerge out of the choices of Black people in the United States? Well, let’s consider the timeline. Over 90% of Black Americans are the descendants of people who were captured, enslaved and brought to the New World. When they arrived, they were intentionally stripped of their culture and separated from their families. Over the course of many generations, millions of African Americans were forced to live in a state of deadly inequality for around 200 years (depending on when they arrived). It isn’t until 1965 that Black Americans could even have the possibility of making free choices that could result in parity with whites. So as we can see, the idea that choice, values, and culture could cause inequality is not supported by the timeline: inequality preceded legitimate self-determination of African Americans to make their own choices, establish values, and build a sense of culture.

Of course, people who endorse this narrative may balk at this line of reasoning and clarify that the persistent inequality in the modern era is the result of choices, values, and culture because now people of all demographic backgrounds are free. To evaluate this perspective, let’s consider an analogy where we think of life in America as a foot race. We start this race from the moment we are born and how far we get is a measure of our health, wealth, and status. Those who run the least distance over time are least successful and those who cover the most ground are the most successful. But, this isn’t the only measure of success, another important measure of success is just how far you have gotten, which is not just about your ability to cover ground, but also a question of where you started in the race. This is because life isn’t just a foot race, it’s a relay race! Meaning, people “pass the baton” to their familial successors in the race, so that those who are related to people who succeeded in earlier eras of the foot race (say from 1619 – 1964) are more likely to succeed in the current era. In life, this is analogous to the intergenerational passage of tangible resources like money, homes, vehicles, and economic opportunities, and also intangible resources like familial support, role-modeling, motivational orientation, and values. 

the modern era cannot so simply be separated from the eras that preceded it.

Intergenerational passage of tangible and intangible resources is a well studied topic in the social sciences. Contrary to popular belief, social mobility (i.e. one’s ability to move to a higher level of economic success than one’s parents) is generally quite low in the United States compared to other similar countries. This means that intergenerational economic advantage is particularly decisive in the US. Consider the racial wealth gap: Black families on average have around 10% the median net worth of white families. In terms of actual dollars this means that as of 2016, the median net wealth of whites was $171,000 compared to about $17,600 for black households (and this has likely gotten worse due to COVID-19). This Black-white wealth gap is largely a result of intergenerational wealth transfer. This is also true of homeownership

But, intergenerational transfer goes beyond tangible assets like wealth and homes. Something as intangible as propensity to be incarcerated is intergenerational. A 2017 meta-analysis that synthesized results from 3 million children found that risk of criminal behavior is 2.4 to 1.8 times higher for kids with criminal parents (a trend that has actually gotten worse since 1981). This is partly because parents (even those who have not been incarcerated) often have little choice but to pass their low income, high crime, and overpoliced community to their children. In highly policed areas, children’s contact with law enforcement is linked to psychological distress that predicts criminal behavior (even after controlling for prior delinquent behavior). Black kids that do not have life altering experiences with crime or police find similar intergenerational effects apply to educational advantage. If they do get to college, Black Americans are far more likely to be first-generation college students who do not have the benefit of parents who successfully navigated college. The intergenerational passing of educational advantage is a well-documented mechanism in the white/black achievement gap. People also inherit a positive attitude towards working hard from their parents according to another meta-analysis of nearly 10,000 people. Even the propensity to participate in political struggles that can address some of the systemic issues at play here is itself intergenerational. In the year before Trump won the election with 3 million less votes than Clinton, a study found that political participation intention is partly intergenerational. 

In so many ways, the groups that succeeded in previous generations “passed the baton” of cumulative advantage to those who have come after them.

Other lines of evidence demonstrate how disparities influence choice and behavior. For example, lead poisoning is 2 to 6 times higher in Black communities (due in large part to discriminatory housing policies) in comparison to white communities. Poisoning of this sort is a causal factor in higher criminal behavior, intellectual decline, and downward social mobility. But unwelcoming environments aren’t just due to toxins. Experiences with discrimination can also leave very long lasting negative societal effects. In one Africa based study the slave trade was linked to societal levels of trust today by having a detrimental effect on the “norms, beliefs, and values” of modern Africans. In summary, discrimination and mistreatment of Black Americans preceded racial disparities, whether we are talking about tangible inequality, like money and homes, or inequality of an intangible nature, like behavioral patterns, cultural orientation, or motivation. These studies demonstrate that the modern era cannot so simply be separated from the eras that preceded it. In so many ways, the groups that succeeded in previous generations “passed the baton” of cumulative advantage to those who have come after them.

So yes, conservatives are correct in some sense, individual differences matter, but individual differences are largely passed intergenerationally and thus are in large part the result of past discrimination and racial inequality. Like everything else, behaviors and choices don’t emerge out of nowhere, they emerge from a specific historical and social context. As we have seen the relevant historical context is quite unequal. This is a rehashing of the point I made in my last article that bears repeating: The conservative position does not really grapple with the full problem. Sure, there are differences in choices and values within certain communities, but why? 

Here, I should note that for some, this question leads to a fundamental notion in the history of psychology: nature vs nurture. In previous eras racial disparities were thought to be either due to the environmental differences in the lives of Blacks and whites, or they were due to genetic differences (an idea with an ugly past and present). Scientists now know that this is a false dichotomy, it’s not nature or nurture, it’s both in a complex and often hard to predict interaction. Separating them can be impossible, particularly when certain environmental conditions, like experiences of discrimination are inseparably linked to one’s genetically determined race. For these reasons, the history of focusing on genetics as a cause of racial inequality is both racist and seen as pseudoscientific. But even from a strictly pragmatic perspective, we can only influence environmental factors since we don’t have the tools to ethically influence genetics. Besides, given that around a quarter of the population today were alive when overt discrimination and racism was legal and normalized, and we have compelling evidence that previous inequality intergenerationally became current inequality (as previously discussed), we have every reason to focus on addressing environmental causes for racial inequality. 

Whether we rely on empirical experimental evidence or evaluate temporal precedence, it’s clear that the origin of racial inequality is historical and current discrimination. In view of all the facts, there is not a solid basis to argue that somehow the black community is ultimately to blame for their lower position on the social and economic hierarchy. Racial discrimination was codified into law for 87% of the relevant history for US citizens. In the remaining 13% of history, progress towards racial inequality has been slow. The intergenerational transmission of both tangible and intangible resources has ensured that those who benefited from subjugation and discrimination continue to win the relay race of life in the US. Likewise, the descendants of those who suffered through this history remain behind with little recourse but to continue to struggle for equality hopefully with the allyship of people from other racial groups who understand the need for racial equality. 

Why is there racial inequality in the US?

Conservatives and liberals offer differing views on the causes of racial inequality.
What does the experimental evidence say?

The Black Lives Matter protests and associated high profile cases of police violence against unarmed Black men has catalyzed a conversation about race in the US. However, the problem of racial inequality extends far beyond policing. Racial inequality has a deep history in the US and despite the struggles in the Civil Rights Era that resulted in (mostlylegal equality, there is still vast inequality between Black and white citizens in practice.

It is hard to overstate just how clear the evidence is for the claim that racial inequality is an ongoing problem in the United States. While there is probably a handful of people who would deny this reality, most people across the political spectrum agree that there is racial inequality. Where people disagree is on the question of why there is racial inequality. There are essentially two competing narratives: 1) “Racial inequality is caused by historical and ongoing discrimination,” or 2) “Racial inequality is due to differences in choices, culture, and/or values.” The former narrative emphasizes that the Black community has been (and continues to be) held back by racism on an individual and systemic basis. The latter narrative emphasizes the legal equality that Blacks and whites share and thus attributes disparities to differences across individuals in each group. 

Which of these narratives one endorses is highly correlated with their demographic group.  Conservatives (compared to liberals), are more likely to adopt the latter narrative. In other words, they are much less likely to agree that discrimination is the main reason Black people can’t get ahead. Similarly, whites (compared to Black Americans), are much less likely to cite discrimination, lower quality schools, and lack of jobs as the causes of inequality. The polls cited above also show there are similar racial and ideological splits on perceptions of the Black Lives Matter movement. Beyond this polling data, you can find plenty of examples of these narratives emerging out of their respective demographic camps. 

In the conservative magazine National Reviewattorney Peter Kirsanow argues that “individual behavior, family structure, perverse governmental policies, and culture” are largely ignored when discussing racial inequality. He also claims that “systemic, structural, or institutional racism” are over-emphasized by liberals in a politically convenient ploy. Popular conservative commentator Ben Shapiro echoed this perspective here saying racial inequality, “has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with culture.” 

The alternative narrative, that racial inequality is caused by historical and ongoing discrimination, is actually quite widespread in the news media even within outlets that are somewhat “down the middle”. For example, this USA Today article connects disparities in police violence and coronavirus deaths to systemic racism. The author argues that aspects of racial inequality are “intimately connected” and points to a legacy of discrimination as the cause of current housing disparities between white people and Black people. For a more liberal example, this Mashable article succinctly claims that systemic racism “is everywhere” and also links it to racial disparities related COVID-19 and high profile policing deaths. 

Experimental research

The statistics about racial inequality are basically correlations. Being Black is correlated with a variety of disadvantages; being white is correlated with a variety of advantages. So how can we understand what causes these advantages and disadvantages? Well, how do scientists typically establish causation? The best tool scientists have to determine cause and effect is the Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT). In an RCT, researchers randomly assign participants to a treatment condition, where they undergo some sort of intervention, or to a control condition. Since the assignment to condition is random, we can assume that any differences between the treatment and control conditions are the result of the intervention, since without it the groups would be the same. This methodology is the gold standard for investigating the cause of something. However, in many cases, there are practical and ethical reasons for why we cannot do the experiment we would need to do in order to fully establish causality.

As an example, take the assertion that racism is responsible for an academic achievement gap between Black people and white people. This claim could be experimentally tested by exposing white and Black children to racism against their groups, and then testing their  academic achievements. We would want to control for other factors, so the children would need to be moved to three isolated communities that are treated identically except for how they are treated in terms of their race. In one community, the white children would be taught about the long history of their subjugation and then be subject to systemic and individual discrimination. In another community the Black kids would get this treatment. In the control, there would be no racial inequality or discrimination. We would test them every year for ten years to see what the effect of racism is on the achievement gap. Clearly, the above example would be an ethical nightmare. There is no way to (ethically) randomly assign the things that are said to cause racial disparities we see in society. We cannot randomly assign people to be white or black, or to be subjected to racism and discrimination, or to have specific values and culture. However, scientists have found ways to conduct ethical experiments to test the effects of discrimination. 

For example, consider disparities such that compared to white people, Black people were less likely to be employedmore likely to be in poverty, have about 10% of the net worth of whites, and have half the median income of white people. Is there any experimental evidence that this situation is the result of discrimination? The quick answer is yes. Hiring discrimination occurs when equally qualified Black people are less likely to receive a job offer than their white counterparts. Researchers study this phenomenon through what are called “hiring audit studies”. In these hiring audit studies, researchers respond to job advertisements with 2 job applications that are identical in every way except the race of the applicant (usually using a Black-coded name like “Jamal” vs a white-coded name like “Steve”). In 2017, a meta-analysis representing data from 28 previous hiring audit studies found evidence of racial bias in hiring such that whites receive 36% more callbacks than identically qualified Black people. They also did not find evidence that this level of discrimination had changed over the last 25 years. Worse, these researchers also found that discrimination doesn’t stop at callbacks, even after getting callbacks, black applicants face further discrimination. These experiments demonstrate that discrimination has been happening for the last few decades and is currently ongoing, and it is keeping qualified Black people out of work.  

Over this same period of time, dozens of similar audit studies have been completed to detect housing discrimination, where Black prospective home-buyers or renters are denied housing while identically qualified white buyers or renters are welcomed to the neighborhood. In these studies, there are white and Black auditors who submit housing applications with identical information, except the person submitting the application is either Black or white. Often, the auditors are even trained to give the same responses during interactions with realtors. Again, scientists here try to control for every other conceivable factor besides race. In a meta-analysis representing 72 housing audit studies in the US, Canada, and Europe, researchers evaluated the level of housing discrimination since the 70s. During the 70s through the 90s, Black people were about 50% less likely to receive a positive response from a housing application compared to whites. Other studies showed that discrimination decreased after the 90s so that Blacks are only 25% less likely to receive a positive response on a housing application. The most recent estimate shows that Black people today are still about 15% less likely to get those positive responses compared to whites. While it has decreased, this current level of discrimination still represents a significant difference in how equally qualified Black people and white people are treated. Worse still, this decrease has coincided with other forms of housing discrimination such as on Airbnb where applications from accounts with Black names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical white accounts. Homeownership is an effective way of building wealth, particularly for low-income and minority households, so housing discrimination has likely had important downstream effects that have contributed to economic inequality across the generations.

Economic discrimination between equally qualified Black and white people is found in a variety of domains, such as car purchasinggetting home insurancegetting a mortgage, and even hailing a taxi! The discrimination Black Americans face is sickening–literally. A 2015 meta-analysis documented that experiences with discrimination and racism in day-to-day life predicts poorer health for Black people. Data taken from 293 studies showed that reported racism predicted both poorer mental and physical health. Even within the doctor’s office, patients cannot escape the effects of racial discrimination. An audit-style study was done with physicians making recommendations about Black and white patients portrayed by actors with identical histories. Black patients were less likely to be referred for potentially life-saving treatment compared to whites with the same clinical presentation. Similar audit work has found racial discrimination towards middle class Black patients in the mental health context. Doctors have been found to harbor a racial bias that Black people are less sensitive to pain (which is likely the opposite of what is true) and thus under-prescribe pain medication to Black patients. But the effects of bias extend beyond just pain treatment. A 2015 systematic review found that racial bias of medical professionals predicts racial disparities in treatment decisions, treatment adherence, patient-provider interactions, and ultimately patient health.

discrimination has been happening for the last few decades and is currently ongoing, and it is keeping qualified Black people out of work.  

The evidence is clear*: discrimination does indeed cause racial disparities. It’s important to recognize that these studies demonstrate discrimination between otherwise identical people. In the audit studies I reviewed above Black people weren’t discriminated against for being poor, or uneducated, or having a criminal background. All of that is controlled for in these studies. These studies demonstrate in no uncertain terms that Black Americans in the modern era are being discriminated against simply because of their race. As discussed above, racial discrimination accounts for some significant portion of disparities in employment, income, wealth, housing, transportation, and medical treatment. Black people are even discriminated against in the primary domain they have to meaningfully influence the policies that could change this situation: voting

But, what about the conservative position that individual factors cause racial disparities? We run into a bit of a problem at this point; while researchers have cleverly devised a way to experimentally measure the effects of discrimination through audit studies, there is no way of auditing the effects of culture, choices, motivation and/or values. To credit the conservative position, psychologists study individual differences in choices, cultural orientation, values, or behavior, and we know that these things play a role in success. But again, this is correlational. How do we know if these individual factors play a causal role in racial inequality? 

Well, in some sense this topic is at the center of a lot of academic research. Researchers in psychology often cannot experimentally change the systematic factors related to racial disparities (like policy-makers could), so they come up with interventions to influence characteristics of individuals to help alleviate gaps. For example, Black students who enter college often do not feel a sense of belonging and this lack of perceived belonging is linked to worse academic outcomes for Black students compared with white students. Researchers designed an intervention where participants read stories from other students that encouraged participants to think about belonging as something that develops over time and strengthens as you make connections with students and faculty. This simple one-time intervention was replicated across a wide variety of schools and resulted in a 31-40% decrease in the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. 

At the heart of this approach is seeing individual differences as a component of a recursive cycle, where disadvantage facilitates the development of tendencies (such as a lack of belonging and the resulting vulnerability to failure or academic disengagement) that maintain or exacerbate disadvantage (which reinforce negative tendencies, etc). This cycle means that something like feeling you don’t belong is both a result and cause of racial inequality. This theory has led to wonderful scientific findings! For example, there was a 2009 intervention where students participated in a series of writing tasks to reflect on their values. In the task, students wrote about the personal importance of a self-defining value. This simple task in early seventh grade resulted in Black students having a stronger belief in themselves to fit in and succeed in school. These changes in the psychological orientation of students accounted for a significant decrease in the white/Black achievement gap by 8th grade graduation. There are plenty more examples of these types of interventions throughout psychology. 

Thus, the conservative viewpoint is partly correct: choices, values, and behavior can lead to differences in terms of who gets into college, who succeeds academically, and who becomes successful. I suspect most liberals and academics would agree with this view but do not agree that this view should be used to dismiss discrimination and systemic problems. Racial differences in choices, values, and behavior may help maintain and exacerbate racial inequality but we need to ask, “where do racial differences in choices, values, and behavior come from?” The academic answer is that they emerge from contexts that are deeply related to discrimination in the past and in the present. Furthermore, by understanding the origins of racial differences in behavior we can more effectively develop interventions that mitigate these differences. But it’s important to note that interventions like the belonging intervention are attempts to address the symptoms of racial inequality; they do not deal with inequality at its source by ameliorating historical injustice or correcting current discrimination (as found in the hiring and housing studies discussed above).

In summary

Taking in all of the research discussed above, the role of discrimination in racial inequality has such a strong foundation in historical and empirical facts that denying the role of discrimination is to depart from a scientifically informed view. On the other hand, the notion that racial inequality is at least in part due to values, behavior, and choices is true to some extent as well. Indeed, this is at the heart of much of the research about how to close achievement gaps between Black and white students. However, the perspective found in academic journals is communicated in quite different terms compared to some conservative arguments. Scientists and historians know that racial disparities in values, behaviors, choices, and even culture have emerged in a continually discriminatory environment with intergenerational disadvantages that maintained racial inequality (the subject of another article of mine). My investigation suggests that a science-based model of the causes of inequality accepts both narratives as partly true and not mutually exclusive

If someone uses the argument that individual differences in values, culture, or behavior accounts for racial disparities as a way to deny discrimination as a cause, they are no longer aligned with the scientific evidence; we know discrimination is real, is currently happening, and is part of the story of inequality. If they cite individual differences as a way of blaming disadvantaged groups for their own disadvantage, they are also not aligned with the scientific evidence; we know that many of these individual differences emerge from a historical and current context of inequality that Black communities have had minimal control over. On the other hand, if someone is denying any role for individual differences, they have also departed from the relevant science. 

In this era of extreme partisanship and misinformation, it is more important than ever to ensure that our ideological perspectives are tempered and informed by the scientific evidence. The causal story behind racial inequality is extremely complex; I have barely scratched the surface in this article. We should leave no tool out of our tool box in order to solve the problem of racial inequality. We need people to investigate and study discrimination, the individual differences that account for inequality, the contexts that give rise to the individual differences, and the systematic forces at work. We also need science-based interventions and advocacy to address both the causes and symptoms of racial inequality. The resulting research should guide our thinking about these topics and help us find solutions. That means admitting the interplay between contexts and choices, between decisions and discrimination, and between history and the here-and-now. 

*Update 1/5/2021: For the sake of time, I left off the interesting academic debate about audit studies. These critiques have not borne out as particularly effective (also see here).

Originally posted on the Pipette Pen
Peer edited by Melody Kessler and Rachel Ernstoff
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Racial inequality is real. Here is the scientific evidence.

It is hard to overstate just how clear the evidence is for the claim that racial inequality is an ongoing problem in the United States. There are many studies documenting the disparities that exist between Blacks and whites in the United States. The following is a list of evidence for the claim that racial inequality is an ongoing problem in the United States. This list is a “living document” that will be regularly updated to incorporate new scientific data as it comes in (or as I become aware of it). Please use this resource to make evidence-based contributions to discussions about racial inequality in the United States. 

Also, use the button on the right side of the screen to subscribe to my blog to get notified of my upcoming articles on the causes of racial inequality in the United States. There are compelling scientific reasons to see that racial inequality today is linked to past inequality. There is also compelling evidence from experimental research that current discrimination plays a role in current racial inequality.

Science of Social Problems Youtube Channel


Black and white disparities

Income, wealth, and jobs

  • 18.7% (see table 2 here in 2019) of Black Americans live in poverty, compared to 7.3% of white Americans. 
  • 32% of Black American children live in poverty, compared to 11% of white American children. 
  • 19.1% of Black households have an inability to obtain adequate nutritious food, compared to 7.9% of white households (as of 2019). 
  • Black households have about 10% of the median net worth compared to their white counterparts (as of 2016).
  • Black household median annual income is nearly half that of white households (as of 2018).
  • 15.4% of Black Americans are unemployed, compared to 10.1% white Americans (as of 2020). 
  • 1% of fortune 500 company CEOs are Black, despite Black people making up 13% of the American population (as of 2020).
  • 36% of blacks have money in the stock market, compared to 60% of whites (as of 2017).
  • Typical Black households have 46% of the retirement wealth of typical white households (as of 2016).


  • 47% of Black families own a home, compared to 76% of white families (as of 2nd quarter 2020). 
  • 20% of black households are extremely low-income renters, compared to 6% of whites (as of 2019).
  • 40% of the homeless population is Black, despite only representing 13 percent of the general population (as of 2019).
  • 790 in 10,000 loans for black households were foreclosed upon, while only 452 in 10,000 loans for non-Hispanic white households were foreclosed upon (between 2005-2008).


  • 80% of K-12 educators are white, while only 6.3% are Black.
  • In a 2016 study, Black and white teachers were asked to identify problematic behaviors in a group of children (there were in fact no problematic behaviors in the video). Eye-tracking methods showed that they excessively monitored the black boy in the video.
  • 64% of Black American children attend low income (i.e. Title 1) schools, compared to 33% of white American children.
  • 37% of Black Americans age 18 – 24 enrolled in college in 2018, compared to 42% of whites
  • 22.8% of Black Americans age 25 – 29 graduate from college, compared to 42.1% of white Americans (as of 2017).
  • 42% of Black college students are first generation (i.e. parents didn’t attend or graduate from college), compared to only 28% of white students (as of 2012).
  • 30% of Black and Hispanic students with 3.5 or higher high school GPAs attend community colleges, compared to 22% of white students (as of 2009).
  • 72% of Black students go into debt to pay for their education, compared to 56% of white students (as of 2016).
  • 5% of professors, associated professors, assistance professors, instructors, lecturers, or other faculty are black compared to 70% that are white (as of 2017).


Something to note about police statistics, is there is often not national data that can be used to understand racial disparities. Instead, specific police departments share data with a specific group of researchers. Thus many of the data points below are not taken from the US as a whole.

  • Unarmed Black people are killed by police disproportionately.
  • The likelihood of incarceration was higher for Black people at every level of wealth compared to the white likelihood.
  • Black and white Americans sell and use drugs at similar rates, but Black Americans are 2.7 times more likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses (as of 2015).
  • A 2017 study of 20,000,000 traffic stops in North Carolina revealed that Black drivers are 95% more likely to be stopped (after controlling for amount of driving), and when stopped are 115% more likely to be searched.
  • A 2017 study of 4.5 million police stops in North Carolina revealed that blacks are more likely to be searched in comparison to whites even when controlling for the rates of carrying contraband.
  • Minneapolis police use force against black people at 7 times the rate of whites between 2015 and 2020.
  • Black Americans (from nationally representative data) are 1.7 times more likely to be arrested over a misdemeanor than whites, a trend that is remarkably consistent from 1980 until 2015.
  • Black Americans (from a national study) were the targets of 39% of SWAT deployments in comparison to whites only making 20% (numbers disproportional to their population).
  • Wrongful conviction data based on the National Registry of Exonerations as of 2017.
    • Based on exonerations, innocent black people are 7 times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people.
    • African-American prisoners who are convicted of murder are 50% more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers.
    • African Americans imprisoned for murder are more likely to be innocent if they were convicted of killing white victims.
    • The convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were 22% more likely to include misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants.
    • On average black murder exonerees spent three years longer in prison before release than white murder exonerees, and those sentenced to death spent four years longer.
  • Prosecution and sentencing in NYC from 2010-2011
    • Blacks were 10% more likely to be detained before their trial compared to whites, while controlling for other factors, including charge seriousness and prior record.
    • Blacks were 20% more likely to be detained before a misdemeanor trial compared to whites.
    • Blacks were 9% more likely to have their cases dismissed compared to whites.
    • For Blacks sentenced for misdemeanors, they are 47% more likely to received custodial offers (i.e. serving reduced time or time-served in pre-trial) as opposed to non-custodial sentences (i.e. community service, probation, and fines) compared to whites.
    • Blacks were 5% more likely (compared to whites) to be sentenced to prison, after controlling for a range of factors. This can be broken down further into the following:
      • 15% more likely for misdemeanor person offenses.
      • 15% more likely for misdemeanor drug offenses.
      • 14% more likely for felony drug offenses.
  • In a 2011 study of 5 counties in Texas, California, Florida, and Illinois, Black Americans were held at a higher bail compared to whites, even after controlling for failure to appear in court.
  • In a 2014 study of 4 counties in Texas, Iowa, New York, and Oregon, Black probationers had higher odds (18 – 39%) of having their probation revoked, even after controlling for available factors (such as crime severity, criminal history, drug/alcohol problems, risk assessment scores, etc.).
  • A 2016 report shows that 45% of prisoners in solitary confinement (i.e. restricted housing) are black despite making 40% of the prison population.
  • Using data from 1973 until 2019, defendants were 17 times more likely to receive the death penalty when they are convicted of killing a white victim than when convicted of killing a black victim.
  • Black people are 5% more likely to receive the death sentence after controlling for culpability (as of 1998).
  • 1,730 per 100,000 (about 1.7%) Black Americans are incarcerated, compared to 270 per 100,000 (about .3%) white Americans. For reference, Blacks make up about 13.4% of the population, compared to 76.3% of the population


  • In 2013, 18.8% of (nonelderly) Black Americans were uninsured while 12.3% of white Americans were. In the years since the ACA was implemented, this gap has closed a bit such that in 2019, 11.5% of Black and 7.5% of white Americans were uninsured.
  • 11.4 per 1,000 Black American infants die in childbirth, compared to 4.9 per 1,000 white American infants (as of 2015).
  • The likelihood of a Black mother dying during childbirth is 4-5 times higher than for white women (as of 2016).
  • Racial/ethnic minorities are 1.5 – 2 times more likely than whites to have most of the major chronic diseases.
  • Age-adjusted death rate for non-Hispanic Black Americans is 876.1 per 100,000 compared to 753.2 per 100,000 for non-Hispanic white Americans as of 2015.
  • Black mortality rate in 2015 is 16% higher than white mortality rate (a drop from 33% in 1999).
  • Black mortality rate for people under 65 is 40% higher than the white mortality rate.
  • Black American life expectancy is 75.5 years compared to 78.9 years for white Americans as of 2015.
  • Racial health disparities accounted for over $1 trillion (in 2008 dollars) in direct and indirect costs for the years 2003-2006.
  • Black people breathe 66% more air pollution from vehicles than white residents (as of 2019). 
  • Black children have lead poisoning levels 2-6 times higher than white children (as of 2010).
  • Black women of reproductive age have nearly 3 times the level of cadmium poisoning compared to their white counterparts (after controlling for other variables; as of 2006).

Democratic influence

Originally posted 9/17/2020 and last updated 1/21/2021