Three ways research perpetuates injustices

By Barış Bayram

Barış Bayram (biography)

Why is it hard to recognise the full value of a new idea, research finding or other innovation? Why do people fail to properly appreciate other people or things most of the time? Can this help explain why injustices persist?

There is no “invisible hand” that allocates rewards according to capabilities or performance, including ensuring that academic research or social interactions are recognised in terms of scientific or ethical merits.

There are three main patterns causing what I call “unjust appreciation”:

  1. lack of intellectual development to determine values, merits and deserts (ie., just rewards)
  2. cognitive biases and social biases, especially related to status and groups
  3. tribalism, along with power and conflict considerations that rely on cost-benefit analysis.

These patterns are often unconscious and primarily stem from our desire to avert social, existential and cognitive costs. Such costs for yourself are incurred whenever it is “better” to appreciate, use or generate a research tool (which could be a rule, theory, concept, situation, action, idea, policy or capability) that is incompatible with those you used previously.

Therefore, when you appreciate such an incompatible research tool, you will lose some of your important previous investments, theoretical grounds and rewards. Further you may need to correct past unjust appreciations in accordance with the new knowledge.

Such cost-aversions facilitate and are facilitated by motivated reasoning, confirmation bias and unethical power relations. They also maintain the status quo leading to selecting, valuing, promoting and rewarding agents, theories, capabilities or performances that are in line with existing social status and power relations. “Unjust appreciation” can therefore support, rationalise and generate injustice and untruths that are promulgated by higher status, powerful agents in any social network.

For example, a new model or other research innovation is more likely to be underappreciated if it is:

  • offered by a low status and/or “disliked” researcher
  • incompatible with an important theoretical tool used by high status researchers to corroborate their own academic work.

Consequently, “unjust appreciation” as a means of unjust punishment can hinder any critically useful possibilities of research innovation on complex problems because higher status agents seek to conserve and justify the merits of their work and their position.

Why is this important for researchers tackling complex societal and environmental problems?

Failure to appreciate these patterns underpinning “unjust appreciation” means that research on complex problems may be ineffective, or even worse, may perpetuate injustices. There are three key issues to be aware of:

  • researchers are prone to the cost-aversions described above, which may influence the topics they choose to work on or the approaches taken to the topics
  • even if individual researchers are attuned to avoiding these cost-aversions in their own work, the broader research community may be disposed to “unjust appreciation”
  • public policy makers, commercial interests and others in a position to act on research findings may be motivated to maintain an unjust status quo.

In countries with authoritarian regimes, and even democracies, there is a considerable risk that researchers might avoid any challenging implications for the status quo, especially in relation to their government’s expectations, be they implicit or explicit.

Questioning ourselves about lack of intellectual autonomy, ethical credit-assignment and motivations

Although my theoretical model leads to a pessimistic interpretation of the current rules and dynamics of how to reward in any realm of the status quo, high-quality awareness of such problematic aspects could motivate us to optimistically innovate and realize alternative sociocultural patterns toward transformational change in terms of ethical improvements. This requires us to deliberately understand real interests in: (a) further realizations of justice and (b) value optimization where the world benefits most from what is actually and/or potentially valuable.

How can we ensure that, as individuals and tribes, researchers rapidly overcome our own aversion to publicly criticize and challenge past and present untruths, injustices and unethicalities, both in the research that we conduct and in the societies we work in?

I suggest the following are key:

  • stay alert to and avoid sociocultural patterns that support, rationalise and generate injustice
  • invest in debiasing, ie., develop rules and capabilities to counter cognitive and social biases associated with “unjust appreciation”
  • frame “just appreciation” as the principal means of achieving better research innovation and social utility, and improve feedback and appreciation patterns in order to be able to globally catalyze a sociocultural shift in ethical directions.

What ideas do you have for avoiding an aversion in research to publicly criticizing and challenging past and present untruths, injustices and unethicalities? Do you have examples to share of “just appreciation” achieving better research outcomes?

To find out more:
Bayram, B. (2017). How to construct empirically verifiable ethics to fix the status quo. (Online):

Bayram, B. (2018). Real merits and talent for progress, social justice and the Global Goals. (Online):

Biography: Barış Bayram is an independent researcher in Istanbul, Turkey. His research interests include metaethics, complexity theory, decision science, social networks, behavioral economics, psychology, human rights and transdisciplinarity. Since 2015 his research has focused on modelling to improve systems toward realizing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

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