Skip to main content

The interplay between social and scientific accounts of intergroup difference

By Cliodhna O’Connor

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The investigation of intergroup difference is a ubiquitous dimension of biological and behavioural research involving human subjects. Understanding almost any aspect of human variation involves the comparison of a group of people, who are defined by some common attribute, with a reference group which does not share that attribute. This is an inescapable corollary of applying the scientific method to study human minds, bodies and societies. However, this scientific practice can have unanticipated – and undesirable – social consequences. As my own research has shown in the contexts of psychiatric diagnosis (O’Connor, Kadianaki, Maunder, & McNicholas, in press), gender (O’Connor & Joffe, 2014) and sexual orientation (O’Connor, 2017), scientific accounts of intergroup differences can often function to reinforce long-established stereotypes, exaggerate the homogeneity of social groups, and impose overly sharp divisions between social categories.

Without disputing the scientific legitimacy of intergroup comparisons in research, it is important to acknowledge that the definitions and distinctions that determine which populations are compared are given by culture, not by nature. For one thing, there are relatively few discrete categories underlying human variability ‘in the wild:’ even for variables seen as the most obvious examples of natural kinds, such as sex, the boundaries between categories are much fuzzier than is typically acknowledged (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). The pragmatic demands of experimental design encourage scientists to carve the social world at joints that it may not naturally possess. Secondly, the choice of intergroup comparison is not value-neutral: the priorities of governments, industries, funding agencies, universities and individual scientists dictate which comparisons are deemed sufficiently interesting or important to investigate. Therefore, even within the scientific sphere, how questions are asked and answered is influenced by a priori understandings of social categories. These understandings are absorbed into all stages of the scientific process, from research design right through the collection, analysis and interpretation of data.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Scientific and cultural understandings become even more enmeshed as scientific findings migrate from the laboratory into wider society. As they circulate through the public sphere, scientific accounts of intergroup difference may come to not merely describe, but actively shape the social divisions they seek to explain. This process is perhaps best captured by Hacking’s (1995) notion of a ‘looping effect,’ which characterises the understandings held by individuals, science and society as locked in a perpetual cycle of mutual influence. Hacking’s key insight is that the constitution of a scientific category, which is then applied to human persons, creates a new ‘kind’ or ‘type’ of person. Psychiatric diagnosis is a paradigmatic example. For instance, the emergence of the scientific category of ‘autism’ in the 20th century changed how a large swathe of persons defined themselves and were perceived by others. As a category becomes widely known, the general public begins to observe the behavioural patterns of individuals classified under this label, and this influences the direction of ongoing research on the topic – for example, Silberman (2015) describes the critical role of parental activism in challenging the conventional conflation of autism with low intelligence. The scientific definition may change again, with a corresponding evolution of the attached social realities. The decision to remove the diagnosis of ‘Asperger’s Disorder’ from DSM-5 was a case in point, leaving some feeling robbed of a label with which they had deeply identified (Singh, 2011).

Gender is another example where the interpenetration of scientific and cultural understandings is highly evident. The science of sex has long been plagued by prejudice: throughout modern history, biological explanations of sex differences have been a stock tool for those seeking to justify women’s exclusion from political, occupational and financial realms. This continues today: as Cordelia Fine (2017) demonstrates in her recent book, much contemporary sex difference research is premised on recurrent conceptual and methodological biases. These include the presumption of a simplistic gender binary in research design and interpretation, the tendency to over-emphasise small between-sex differences while ignoring large within-sex variation, and the unwarranted favouring of deterministic genetic explanations for brain differences over the equally plausible proposition that plastic brains are shaped by systematically different social experiences. These problems are heightened when scientific information enters the communication channels that comprise today’s public sphere, as Helene Joffe and I showed in an analysis of social representations of one high-profile study of neurological sex differences (O’Connor & Joffe, 2014). By tracking how the scientific information evolved as it moved from the scientific journal, via a press release, into mass and social media, we demonstrated that irrelevant gender stereotypes were progressively hitched onto the study as it was reported and discussed. The rhetorical authority of ‘science’ was harnessed to justify these stereotypes’ factual truth and normative legitimacy.

Image courtesy of Public Domain Pictures

The theories and techniques of social psychology are crucial resources in understanding the processes and outcomes of these interactions between science and society. For instance, there is a rich literature enlightening how group identity commitments drive interpretations of scientific information: people selectively attend to and elaborate information in ways that support their own group’s worldview (Joffe, 1999; Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2011; Morton, Haslam, Postmes, & Ryan, 2006). Research on psychological essentialism specifically investigates the effects of attributing group differences to biology: for example, while genetic explanations of mental illness may reduce blame, they simultaneously increase fear, social distance, perceived dangerousness, and patronising treatment (Dar-Nimrod & Heine, 2011). Theories of stereotype formation can illuminate the networks of beliefs into which scientific accounts of intergroup difference may be drawn: for instance, media accounts of sex difference research often comply with a form of ‘complementary stereotyping,’ where the derogation of women’s intellectual abilities is made more palatable by emphasising their superior performance in other, less valued domains (e.g. ‘emotional intelligence’). Packaging stereotypes in a way that makes them sound reasoned and reasonable increases their effectiveness at inculcating acceptance of inequalities (Jost & Kay, 2005). Scientific information about group difference can therefore be used to make social inequalities seem justified and inevitable.

For scientists engaged in public communication of their research, familiarity with these social psychological dynamics is invaluable in anticipating the likely societal effects their research may have. Understanding these processes can help scientists predict how their work might be interpreted by others in undesirable ways, as well as inform critical reflection on how their own biases may affect the research questions they select and pursue. A socially responsible scientist should be aware of the feedback-loops between science and society and unafraid to scrutinise the ways their research influences, and is influenced by, the cultural, political and ideological environments in which it is situated.

Dr. Cliodhna O’Connor is a social psychologist and Assistant Professor in Psychology in University College Dublin, Ireland. Her research investigates how people engage with scientific information and the implications this has for social attitudes, self-concept and common-sense beliefs. She currently holds a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship, which supports a mixed-methods research programme exploring the phenomenon of diagnostic transitions in youth mental healthcare. 


Dar-Nimrod, I., & Heine, S. J. (2011). Genetic essentialism: On the deceptive determinism of DNA. Psychological Bulletin, 137(5), 800-818.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Fine, C. (2017). Testosterone Rex: Unmasking the Myths of our Gendered Minds. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Hacking, I. (1995). The looping effects of human kinds. In D. Sperber, D. Premack, & A. J. Premack (Eds.), Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate (pp. 351-383). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Joffe, H. (1999). Risk and ‘the Other.’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jost, J. T., & Kay, A. C. (2005). Exposure to benevolent sexism and complementary gender stereotypes: consequences for specific and diffuse forms of system justification. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 88(3), 498-509.

Kahan, D. M., Jenkins-Smith, H., & Braman, D. (2011). Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. Journal of Risk Research, 14(2), 147-174.

Morton, T. A., Haslam, S. A., Postmes, T., & Ryan, M. K. (2006). We value what values us: The appeal of identity-affirming science. Political Psychology, 27(6), 823-838.

O’Connor, C. (2017). ‘Appeals to nature’ in marriage equality debates: A content analysis of newspaper and social media discourse. British Journal of Social Psychology, 56(3), 493-514.

O’Connor, C., & Joffe, H. (2014). Gender on the brain: A case study of science communication in the new media environment. PLoS ONE, 9(10), e110830.

O’Connor, C., Kadianaki, I., Maunder, K., & McNicholas, F. (in press). How does psychiatric diagnosis affect young people’s self-concept and social identity? A systematic review and synthesis of the qualitative literature. Social Science & Medicine.

Silberman, S. (2015). Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. New York, NY: Avery.

Singh, J. S. (2011). The vanishing diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder. In P. J. McGann & D. J. Hutson (eds.), Sociology of Diagnosis (pp. 235-257) Bingley: Emerald.

Want to cite this post?

O’Connor, C. (2018). The interplay between social and scientific accounts of intergroup difference. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


Emory Neuroethics on Facebook