Using Data-Driven Psychological Research to Find Out More About Indians

Researchers at Monk Prayogshala are exploring topics like the psycholinguistics of swearing and gender representation in Indian cinema.

Aneree Parekh, Arathy Puthillam and Hansika Kapoor. Credit: The Life of Science

Aneree Parekh, Arathy Puthillam and Hansika Kapoor. Credit: The Life of Science

Men are better at science, and the arts suit women more – this gender bias is implicit in the psychology of Indians and it has dictated the lower participation of girls in science in the country’s higher education. These are the results of a statistical analysis by Aneree Parekh, 25 and Arathy Puthillam, 23. They are both researchers assistant at the Department of Psychology at the Mumbai-based independent research organisation Monk Prayogshala (MP).

The psycholinguistics of swearing, gender representation in Indian cinema, decision-making power of wives in households, how thoughts feelings and behaviours influence daily decision-making, the morality of superheroes and associations of creativity with narcissism and psychopathy are some of the other interesting research topics pursued at MP.

Packed in an office complex along with hundreds of small businesses, eight MP researchers work together to push hard at the boundaries of Indian academic research. All of them are social scientists, not necessarily endowed with PhDs or postdocs; the will to do research for research’s sake that is data-driven, ethical and independent is all they lean on. “Good creative research cannot happen in a place that is not egalitarian. It just can’t,” stressed Parekh, who I interviewed along with two of her colleagues Kapoor and Puthillam in their tiny office.

Twenty-six-year-old Kapoor was instrumental in the founding of MP. Small independent institutes like this are often springboards for researchers to launch themselves into academia. MP does offer online courses and workshops in social research and many of MP’s alumni went on to do their PhD work abroad. But Kapoor has bigger goals on her mind. “We’ve expanded to include a Department of Economics and, more recently, a Department of Sociology. Our sole mission is to put India on the map of high quality, well-founded research in the social sciences.”

Tools of the trade: Online surveys, open access datasets and experiments

As psychologists, their laboratories are the minds of the Indian people. Most of their research involves crunching numbers from online surveys filled up by volunteers. Some require checking for the frequency of a particular behaviour while others need elaborate experimental setups.

The work on gender bias in science involved mining through already existing datasets that can be huge. “We looked at an open source dataset from a global study called Project Implicit, run by Harvard University psychologists who have done a lot of work with stereotypes. We found the India specific dataset from this project on an open source website called Open Science Framework, which is this brilliant website where researchers from all over the world post the raw data that they have collected that is accessible to everyone to work with,” Parekh said. The India-specific data was around 4,000 respondents strong. After cleaning for age, completion of all the questions and provision on gender demographic data, Parekh and Puthillam analysed 1,396 entries. They found a ‘strong bias’ for associations of words like male and science as compared to female and science. “The technical term ‘strong bias’ in this case means that you would completely, inherently or immediately associate words ‘males’ and ‘physics’,” Parekh explained. To observe the impact of this bias they had to look at another dataset. “In order to hit home the idea (of damage that such a bias can do) we decided to look at government data of enrolment in different fields in higher education.” For this, they got hold of the 2015-2016 results of the All India Survey of Higher Education conducted by the Department of Higher Education of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, government of India.

“We clearly saw that there is significantly more participation of males in science-related fields and females in arts-related fields,” said Parekh.

Results of gender bias and science participation analysis

  1. The correlation suggests that the strong implicit gender bias in Indian psychology has hampered with female participation in STEM.
  2. Implicit and explicit bias found: Men had a stronger bias than women did. Implicit biases correlated with explicitly stated beliefs indicated that Indians who hold these internal biases also endorse the ‘male + science’ beliefs out loud and unreservedly.
  3. Feminine and Masculine studies: Much lower enrollment of women in STEM fields was found as compared to arts. Even within the streams, there was a gender segregation. In the arts stream, the enrolment in courses like ‘dance’ and ‘design’ saw higher proportions of female candidates than male, while courses like ‘journalism’ and ‘mass communications’ and ‘economics’ saw more male candidates than female. In the sciences, courses like ‘nursing’, ‘fashion’ ‘technology’ and ‘physiotherapy’ saw higher proportions of female candidates relative to male. In courses like ‘engineering’ and ‘technology’, there were more male candidates. In medicine, women still participate but if it’s engineering, participation is largely male.
  4. Politically right-leaning persons are more likely to have stronger bias than left-leaning persons.
Source: Parekh and Puthillam/The Life of Science

Source: Parekh and Puthillam/The Life of Science

Source: Parekh and Puthillam/The Life of Science

Source: Parekh and Puthillam/The Life of Science 

Qualitative research

Some of the more qualitative work at MP involves watching movies and coding. “We have done a paper on the Bechdel Test and how it functions in Indian movies.” The Bechdel Test was developed from a comic strip by Alison Bechdel in 1985 to check whether a work of fiction adequately represents women. It has three criteria: a) there are at least two female characters; b) they talk to each other and c) they talk to each other about something other than a man. “We analysed five popular, very mainstream Hindi films, five Hindi parallel cinema films and five other women-centric films. The results were pretty amazing because in the mainstream films there wasn’t even a second female lead at all. I would say not even a single female lead,” Kapoor said.

Hansika Kapoor. Credit: The Life of Science

Hansika Kapoor. Credit: The Life of Science

“Since it involves watching movies, this can be a very fun experience, but it is also rigorous because we are looking for particular types of behaviours. For this, we have to initially prepare a coding booklet weighing certain behaviours into codes. Then you watch a movie and do a frequency count based on the coding booklet and the characters’ behaviour.”

Another MP study aimed at finding out if women’s independent source of income from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) jobs would give her greater bargaining power while making intra-household decisions with her husband. This research was presented to government officials in Tamil Nadu. MP researchers had run field experiments in two villages in the state with the support from Gandhi Gram Rural Institute. “A shop was set up with household items such as toothpaste and balm. There were prices attached to items and the wife and the husband were given Rs 50 token money to spend at the shop separately. Each decides how to spend. In one scenario, the wife came to know what the husband had spent on and vice-versa. Then, they were allowed to change their decisions. The hypothesis was that if the wife changed her decision, she would have lower bargaining power compared to if she maintained her decision,” Kapoor explained.

A standard online MP study has a sample size of 500 people, a small number considering their ambitions and the challenges they have taken on. “It is a very low-cost data collection process, but this is the stage we are in as an organisation,” Kapoor justified. “With ‘amazing funding opportunities’ knocking on the door every day this is the best we can do,” she added, sarcastically.

There are other limitations they recognise, as all good scientists must: “There is a huge selection bias because all the respondents are English-speaking netizens. So we do acknowledge that as a limitation of our research. It limits the generalisability of the research obviously but reviewers and journals have been pretty okay with it as long as you acknowledge that it could have been better.”

The Monk Prayogshala Process

At MP, each researcher takes up two to three projects at a time and each project takes around six months to finish.

The results of their studies have been published in journals like Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Economic & Political Weekly, Psycholinguistic Research, Journal of Gender Studies, Creativity Research Journal – “a flagship journal in the study of creativity”, Psychological Studies – “an Indian one”, Continuum Journal of Media and Cultural Studies etc, Kapoor informed me, proud of six MP articles in peer-reviewed journals this year. “They are relatively high impact factor journals. There are, of course, higher ones,” she said ambitiously.

“We choose the journals strategically, keeping in mind that the work will be an incremental step in the understanding of psychological constructs that have not been studied together.” Rather than relying on official ranks of the journal, the MP process prioritises the impact of their paper themselves by, for instance, sending their results to journals that have published the studies referenced by them.

“The research process at MP is rigorous and reflects the long drawn out process that each researcher goes through to go from a research proposal to a final manuscript,” she said. The request to share and publish the MP process was turned down on grounds of company rules on intellectual property and “high incidence of academic dishonesty and plagiarism, particularly in India”.

“Everybody is inducted into the organisation with this process. Everybody has to adhere to the MP process in different stages. There’s a different process to collect data and there’s a different process to selecting a journal in which to publish.”

One of Parekh’s papers on interpersonal violence had reached the fifth revision and one of Kapoor’s was on 24th revision during the time of the interview. “It is a very marinating process,” Kapoor said.

Summary of MP manifesto. Credit: The Life of Science

Summary of MP manifesto. Credit: The Life of Science

The joys of independent research

Not all MP’s research is meant for research journals. Parekh’s and Puthillam’s work on gender bias and science with the Project Implicit data was conceived to be published only for the popular press.

Disseminating findings and writing for the popular media is a special interest of Parekh’s. She completed her MSc in clinical psychology and developmental disorders from the University of York two years ago. “Direct impact of my work is something I am passionate about,” said the self-proclaimed impatient, ‘i-need-to-see results’ sort of person.

Along with her work at MP, Parekh also sees clients at her psychological counselling practice and two centres in Mumbai. The “silent sexism” she faces sometimes when she tells people she is a researcher irks her. “I guess the knife that cuts the deepest is the silent one. Is that a saying? In fact, someone said to me, ‘oh you are a counsellor as well as a researcher! How do u balance the feminine and the masculine in you??’ I was like which one is which again?” she laughed.

The Project Implicit work was Parekh’s idea. “With this analysis, we wanted to drive home the fact that a lot of social conditioning can make these biases implicit and unless you are self-actualised and self-aware, they will manifest into behaviour.”

“Inherent biases come out in small ways are what hampers the most. If you told me outright that I can’t do this because I am a woman, that would just be a ridiculous assumption because I am going to prove you wrong,” she said.

Parekh and Puthillam. Credit: The Life of Science

Parekh and Puthillam. Credit: The Life of Science

Puthillam joined MP a few months ago; the Project Implicit analysis was where her MP work began. After MA in psychology from Mumbai University and BA at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, she was drawn to MP because it was the only place she could do academic research immediately after college. “I am sure of a career in research and I thought this would be a great way to start. I did not find anywhere else suitable… not for academic research,” she said.

Currently, Puthillam is working on the link between morality and gossip. “Morality has been studied but it hasn’t been linked to gossip before. We are trying to understand how you would gossip about people who have don’t have similar moral anchors as you. Say I have a moral anchor towards fairness…Would I be more likely to gossip about someone who is treating people unfairly because I hold fairness in high regard? This has not really been studied before in this particular way. We are also bringing political orientation into the fold in this study,” she explained.

Is that not obvious, I asked, prodding Kapoor to say: “It may sound obvious, but science doesn’t work like that. There needs to be some empirical evidence for us to actually say that people are going to gossip about others who transgress their moral anchors.”

The three women cherish the benefits that independent research brings. This freedom has led them to some taboo subjects. “A collaborative endeavour between the department of economics and psychology was looking at the economics of prostitution. We wanted to find out how the market is structured. This informal economy has not been studied adequately enough in our country – or most other countries, actually – to be able to understand what drives demand and supply in that profession. A lot of NGOs did not help us because they did not understand why we wanted to investigate this. For us, it was a very academic exercise,” Kapoor shared.

The three of them are conscious of the challenge while explaining to people what this research is and why it is done. Kapoor believes this is less so in the natural sciences. “If you tell someone you are a physicist or a mathematician, they understand that more than if you say you are a sociologist going to the field to do ethnography.”

“My dad still doesn’t exactly know what I do….” Parekh agreed.

They advise those considering a career in in the social research to make sure they are in it for genuine reasons. “You can’t sustain research if you are not interested in it. It will be boring if you are not,” said Parekh.

Take the science and gender implicit bias test yourself here

This piece was originally published by The Life of Science. The Wire is happy to support this project by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, who are travelling across India to meet unsung women scientists.