Deficit Hypothesis

Social science and medical literature, including research on mental health and counseling, has frequently been based on presuppositions that all individuals who differ from members of the sociopolitically dominant cultural group in the United States (i.e., male, heterosexual, Caucasian, Western European Americans of middle-class socioeconomic status and Christian religious affiliation) are deficient by comparison. This deficit hypothesis is particularly apparent in scientific literature presumptions that attribute psychological differences from Caucasians to deviance and pathology.

Deficit Hypothesis and Inferiority Premise

Regarding members of U.S. racial and ethnic minority groups (or people of color)—African American, Hispanic/Latino/a American, Asian American, and American Indian people—the inferiority model is one example of a deficit hypothesis. The inferiority model assumes that the dominant Caucasian group represents the standard for normal or ideal behavior and that cultural groups who differ from these norms are biologically limited and genetically inferior by comparison. In contrast, psychology literature includes critiques that cite how data have been distorted or fabricated to support the inferiority model.

For example, based on the belief that smaller skull size and underdeveloped brains were biologically determined measures of the inferior intelligence of people of color, Samuel George Morton, in the 19th century, published research findings that supported the prevailing inferiority view. Subsequent scholars (e.g., Stephen Jay Gould) disputed these findings by examining Morton’s data and reporting errors of calculation and omission. Nevertheless, the inferiority deficit hypothesis persisted in the mental health and social science literature and practices of the 20th century. Eminent leaders in early American and British psychology perpetuated the inferiority belief of their times.

In 1904 G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association, published his belief that Africans, American Indians, and Chinese people were in an adolescent or immature stage of biological evolution compared with the more advanced and civilized development of Caucasian people. Cyril Burt, an influential British psychologist whom many consider the father of educational psychology, published fabricated data to support his contention that Negros inherit inferior brains and lower intelligence compared with Caucasians. In 1976, Robert Guthrie presented a critique of the flawed scientific evidence offered by several researchers who had claimed to verify the inferior intelligence of American Indians and Mexican Americans. In part due to the conclusions drawn from an inferiority deficit hypothesis, people of color who exhibited symptoms of psychological distress were considered unworthy or incapable of benefiting from most psychological or educational interventions. Thus, they were ignored, jailed, or confined to segregated mental hospitals.

The inferiority premise has resurfaced in current times, for example, in the 1994 publication of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.

Similar to previous investigations based on an inferiority hypothesis, the research of these authors concluded that intelligence is largely inherited and correlated with race; that those who have inferior intelligence (i.e., people of color) should serve those who have superior intelligence (i.e., Caucasians); and that programs purported to promote the intellectual functioning of people of color (e.g., Head Start) are useless, and thus their resources and funding should be reallocated to serve people who are capable of benefiting (i.e., Caucasians of superior intelligence). Subsequently, scholars (e.g., Ronald Samuda, Franz Samelson, Alan Reifman) have refuted these findings and presented empirical evidence that challenges and rejects these conclusions.

Deficit Hypothesis and Cultural Deprivation Premise

In the context of the social activism of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, the genetic inferiority premise of the deficit hypothesis shifted to a cultural deprivation premise. Similar to the inferiority model, the cultural deprivation model assumes that the dominant Caucasian group represents the standard for normal or ideal behavior. However, this model attributes psychological differences from Caucasians to the various ways in which people of color are socially oppressed, deprived, underprivileged, or deficient in comparison.

The term cultural deprivation emerged from scholars’ writing about poverty in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., Frank Riessman’s 1962 book, The Culturally Deprived Child). The deficit hypothesis of cultural deprivation posits that poverty-stricken racial/ethnic minority groups perform poorly in psychological and educational testing and exhibit psychologically unhealthy characteristics because they lack the advantages of Caucasian middle-class culture (e.g., in presumably superior education, books, toys, and formal language). Not only does this premise mistakenly imply that people of color have no valuable cultures of their own, but it also infers that the destructive influences of poverty and racial/ethnic discrimination cause irreparable negative psychosocial differences in their personality characteristics, behavior, and achievement compared with more favorable middle-class Caucasian standards.

In rebuttal, scholars have criticized the scientific merit of the research design and interpretations of findings from studies claiming to support the cultural deprivation model. For example, Abram Kardiner and Lionel Ovesey published a book in 1951, titled The Mark of Oppression, in which they concluded that the basic Negro personality, compared with the general Caucasian personality, is a manifestation of permanent damage, in response to the stigma and obstacles of the social conditions faced by Negroes in U.S. society, which prevents them from developing healthy self-esteem and promotes self-hatred. Scholarly critiques have noted that the authors made these generalizations on the basis of 25 psychoanalytic interviews with African American participants, all of whom but one had identified psychological disturbances, in comparison to a so-called control group of one Caucasian man. Furthermore, Kardiner and Ovesey’s conclusions were disputed for failing to recognize that individuals may respond in a variety of ways (including healthy and unhealthy responses) to stress, hardships, and oppression.

One useful purpose served by studies based on the cultural deprivation premise was the attention paid to the psychosocial and environmental barriers facing people of color and their families. On the other hand, most studies focused only on abnormal and negative aspects in the lives of people of color (e.g., crime and juvenile delinquency). One detrimental implication for cross-cultural counseling is that counselors may similarly attend to and focus on only negative aspects in their assessment and interventions with clients of color. Thus (as noted by scholars such as Elaine Pinderhughes), counselors may misattribute as pathological these clients’ responses to oppression instead of recognizing aspects that may be positive, healthy, and resilient.

Deficit Hypothesis Applications to Other Nondominant Groups

In addition to applications with people of color, the deficit hypothesis may form the basis for some counseling research and practice with other nondominant groups (e.g., by gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation). In other words, the deficit hypothesis may be apparent in presumptions that attribute psychological differences from the dominant group in U.S. society (e.g., male, heterosexual, or Christian) to deficiency or pathology. For example, Carol Gilligan’s research findings have disputed an underlying deficit hypothesis regarding gender differences in moral development (i.e., that female participants are deficient in moral reasoning compared with males).

Her research has demonstrated that the moral reasoning of girls and women is different from, instead of inferior to, that of boys and men.

Alternative Premises

Two alternative premises to those that use only one standard of comparison (e.g., Caucasians) are models of counseling and psychotherapy based on cultural differences or diversity. Another alternative perspective to the deficit hypothesis is that of optimal human functioning. In contrast to presuming mental health deficiency in cultural group members who differ from the dominant group, the basic premise of optimal human functioning is that there are many ways to be human and promote healthy development in response to different cultural contexts and human conditions. One implication for cross-cultural counseling research and practice is that this model for conceptualizing healthy development includes both emic (culturally specific) and etic (universal) considerations. These alternative models of personality and human development offer propositions to explore beyond the ethnocentric limitations of the deficit hypothesis.


  1. Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Guthrie, R. V. (2004). Even the rat was White: A historical view of psychology (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
  3. Walsh, W. B. (Ed.). (2003). Counseling psychology and optimal human functioning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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