404 DATA NOT FOUND: How much information do we lose to the binary?

Missing pages do not bother those who do not look for them. It is only when we start looking, that what we cannot find becomes troublesome, worrying even. As psychology students and researchers, we see more and more empty links and dead ends within our body of knowledge concerning gender. When we try to find information on the behaviour and cognition of people who do not fit the gender binary, we may realise how often these minorities are underrepresented in most contemporary psychological research.

Gender in Psychology

The way gender is assessed and analysed in psychological research is simplistic. Unless the study has to do specifically with trans* people,[1] studies will most often assess the participants’ gender by means of a short question with two options to choose from, sometimes with the additional option to select “other” (Fraser, 2018). With this one question, researchers make plenty of underlying assumptions. These will vary depending on the research question and are unlikely to be listed in the methodology of a research paper, such as that all “women” were brought up as girls and were assigned female at birth, or that all “men” are perceived as men by society at all times. While, undoubtedly, to conduct research is to make peace with flawed methodologies, what I discuss here is one question that can easily be rephrased, an answer to which dictates a vast amount of data interpretation.

“The way gender is assessed and analysed in psychological research is simplistic.”

Gender outside of Psychology

While the gender binary seems to have become a topic of intense debates in psychology only in the second decade of our century, as shown by the removal of “gender identity disorder” from the DSM-5 in 2013, it has been the subject of philosophical debates for much longer. Philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler has long argued that gender is different from sex and that gender is performative, constructed of numerous acts we perform and agree upon as being “masculine” or “feminine” (Butler, 2006). Therefore, to be a woman is to perform the role of a woman and to be a man is to perform the role of a man. Nevertheless, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a person who performs one of the genders entirely and solely.

Following this line of logic, if gender and sex are different phenomena and if the words “man” and “woman” are used to describe individuals who may possess both “masculine” and “feminine” traits at the same time, what can we actually safely assume about people who choose either option in a closed forced-choice question? It seems clear that while the amount of information we have about gender is increasing, and repeatedly proving gender to be more nuanced than we initially thought, psychology is running far behind the frontier of knowledge.

“gender and sex are different phenomena”

Practical implications of the missing data

It may seem that the issue of more sophisticated data on gender missing from the psychological body of knowledge does not affect everyone equally, but mostly affects the lives of gender minorities. However, the reverse is true; it has the potential to affect anyone, regardless of their gender identity. One urgent example is provided by the relative lack of knowledge on successful suicide-prevention interventions for trans* people, even though trans* people are among those with the highest risk of suicide (Haas et al., 2011). While suicide prevention techniques have been researched extensively, such studies most often follow the traditional route of assessing gender with a single binary question (gender: female/male). As a result, not only is any information on the effectiveness of these techniques in working with nonbinary patients lost, but also trans* men and women are impossible to distinguish from cis men and women.[2] Therefore, any potential information on best practices for the trans* population is lost.

The lack of clarity about the gender of study participants might also affect the results of research conducted in our department. A lot of research in psychology is conducted on students (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). These students often participate in a certain quota of studies to obtain course credit. Now, imagine a nonbinary student who participates in those studies. For this student to obtain their course credit, there will presumably be few studies of researchers who did their homework on best practices of asking about gender. The student will probably be forced to indicate their gender by answering a binary question, thus giving a false response. The smaller the overall sample size, the stronger the effect of such false responses on the overall mean; while one false response might not make much difference in a questionnaire filled in by 1,000 participants, it might decrease the validity of the analysis in an experiment conducted on 40 participants. In other words: the smaller the sample size, the more significant the effect of one participant’s score on the overall result and the more emphasis we should put on ensuring all the information that is collected about participants is correct.

“The lack of clarity about the gender of study participants might also affect the results of research conducted in our department. “

Psychological science is continually evolving and invites us to question our own biases. Nevertheless, it is easy to lose track of the changing world outside the lab. Recent developments in conversations about gender both in and outside psychology strongly suggest that it is time for psychologists to get out of the gender binary mind-set and adapt our research methodology accordingly. Further, by changing how we think about gender, we can better understand and help people who do not fit the gender binary and ultimately contribute to increased wellbeing of gender minorities.

Should you be interested in further reading on the topic, I recommend Gloria Fraser’s (2018) article as well as the guide of best practices by the GenIUSS Group (2014). While it is difficult to provide a definite way to tackle this issue fit for any research design, trying to evolve the design of psychological studies and doing so imperfectly trumps keeping to traditions that have been proven to be impractical.


[1] With an asterisk added to underline the use of ‘trans’ as an umbrella term for all non-cis identities, both within and outside the gender binary.
[2] People whose gender identity matches gender they were assigned at birth.

The image of the testcard was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Butler, J. (2006) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge: New York, NY.

Fraser, G. (2018) Evaluating inclusive gender identity measures for use in quantitative psychological research. Psychology and Sexuality 9(4): 343-357.

Haas, A., Eliason, M., Mathy, R., Cochran, S., D’Augelli, A., …, and Clayton, P. (2011) Suicide and suicide risk in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender populations: Review and recommendations. Journal of Homosexuality 58(1): 10-51.

Henrich, J., Heine, S., and Norenzayan, A. (2010) The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33(2-3): 61-83.

The GenIUSS Group (2014) Best Practices for Asking Questions to Identify Transgender and Other Gender Minority Respondents on Population-based Surveys. The Williams Institute: Los Angeles, CA.

Nicholas Sledzinska is a bachelor student of psychology. As a nonbinary student himself, he would like to contribute to increasing knowledge and awareness on lgbt+ issues. His current interests include the ethics of research, human development, and neuropsychology.

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