Ninth Edition CoverGraziano & Raulin
Research Methods (9th edition)

Avoiding Bias in the Use of Language

The American Psychological Association is committed to providing fair treatment to all individuals and groups, and this commitment is reflected in its effort to encourage authors to minimize subtle biases in the way in which material is presented in published articles. 

These biases can often be offensive to members of specific subgroups, and a concerted effort to identify them and correct them should be made. Some of these subtle biases are described below, along with ways to avoid them.

Gender Bias

Our language has often used male references as generic terms, essentially excluding women from the statements being made. This is not only a subtle gender bias, but is often factually incorrect. 

For example, one might write "mankind has been in a constant struggle to ...". Replacing the word "mankind" with "humans" or "people" will correct this problem. 

Note that plural terms are often less likely to be gender specific (e.g., he vs. they), so this strategy is often effective when pronouns intended to be generic are used. 

Many common words, such as policeman, seem to suggest that only males are in that role. Using terms that are not gender-specific, such as police officer, is best.

Group Biases

When referring to any specific group of individuals, one should be sensitive to the implications of language to suggest bias. Not only should blatantly offensive terms be avoided, but also dated terms or terms generally rejected by the group being referenced. 

For example, the terms Black or African American are generally accepted terms, whereas dated terms such as Negro should be avoided. People with a homosexual orientation usually prefer to be referred to as lesbians or gay men. Individuals who are disabled are often inappropriately referred to with labels that imply that the disability is the primary aspect of their being. Some terms, such as "cripples," are now considered blatantly offensive. Other terms, such as "schizophrenics," may not be considered blatantly offensive, but should be avoided. A better approach is to acknowledge the broader group status of such individuals with phases such as "individuals with schizophrenia." 

We often use vague terms to refer to specific age groups (e.g., the young, the old, teens). These terms often have subtle biases built into them, and they are often not specific enough for scientific communication. It is much better to refer to such groups by specific age ranges or activities (e.g., the "over 65 group" or "high school students").

Biases like those described above are often subtle and difficult to recognize in our own language. One way to sensitize oneself to such biases is to reword material to refer to our own group membership or to specifically exclude our own group from the sentence. 

For example, males might try to use only female pronouns, which they would likely find upsetting enough that they would reword to use non-gender-specific terms. For example, we might reword the sentence "Mankind has found many ways to solve disagreements" to "Womankind has found many ways to solve disagreements." This rewording illustrates that the word "mankind" is not gender-neutral, even though the meaning of the sentence was meant to be gender-neutral. Using a genuine gender-neutral phase, such as "Human beings have ...", is more appropriate.