This paper addresses the important issues of making it as an Asian psychologist in an overwhelmingly white academic field. Based on my professional and personal struggle to achieve success as a psychologist in both academia and clinical practice, I want to (a) expose the naked truth of being an Asian psychologist within a white academic field with regard to racial trauma, careerism, and expediency; (b) chart a course of maintaining personal and ethnic authenticity in truth-seeking in spite of all the visible and invisible obstacles in a foreign country; and (c) propose ways to fully recognize indigenous psychology and integrate Asian minorities in mainstream psychology.
Can an Asian psychologist succeed in North America, especially when he is disadvantaged because he (a) Speaks with a heavy Chinese accent; (b) is an introvert by temperament; (c) sees the world from the lens of traditional Chinese culture and the Christian faith, both of which has never been fully accepted by mainstream psychology; (d) revolts instinctively against the reductionist approach in mainstream psychology and the unrealistic optimism of American positive psychology; and (e) is fearlessly outspoken against untruth or injustice?
Not likely. A person with the above characteristics would make things much worse in an already difficult situation for the Asian minority. This kind of person would have a hard time fitting in with the American script of Asians being a “model minority”, that is, they are humble and submissive, and do not want to rock the boat by challenging the authorities or the majority view.
Unfortunately, I happen to be the person portrayed above. That is why my academic life has been an endless uphill struggle, even in my old age. As an Asian psychologist, I have experienced racial discrimination all my adult life in North America. As a case in point, all my most cited papers were first rejected. They were eventually published because I challenged the original decision or resubmitted to another journal (Wong, 2017a).
Here are just four examples of my ground breaking research that were first rejected on some “trumped up charges”:
- When people ask” why” questions, and the heuristics of attributional search (Wong & Weiner, 1981) – Cited 1492 times.
- Meaning and purpose in life and well-being: A life-span perspective (Reker, Peacock & Wong, 1987) – Cited 767 times
- What types of reminiscence are associated with successful aging? (Wong & Watt, 1991) – cited 490 times.
- Death attitudes across the life-span: The development and validation of the Death Attitude Profile (DAP) (Gesser, Wong & Reker, 1988) – cited 388 times.
For example, for the Wong and Weiner (1981) paper, it was rejected for using scenarios as the research methodology, when all the attribution research at that time employed this methodology. I had to do an additional behavioral study to get it published. The Death Attitude Profile (DAP) study (Gesser et al., 1988) was rejected because there were already too many scales measuring death attitude, even when mine was the first one to research different kinds of death acceptance. In my first year at Trent University, all four submissions were rejected for reasons unrelated to scientific merit. For example, my innovative behavioral field study of instrumental learning (Wong, 1977) was first rejected by the Journal of Experimental Studies because the new editor arbitrarily decided not to publish any more papers on instrumental learning. If I had taken No for an answer, I would have never achieved anything in academia, such as being promoted to full professor only 8 years after my doctorate, building a graduate department in counselling psychology from scratch (www.twu.ca), and establishing an international organization (www.meaning.ca) almost singlehandedly.
I often wonder how many talented Asian researchers’ careers have been ruined simply because they took journal rejections as personal failures, not knowing that rejection with the opportunity to resubmit a revised version is a rather good outcome, next to acceptance with revision; it is also the most common editorial decision.
I remember that when I was a visiting scientist at UCLA, Bernie Weiner used to tell me, “If they reject my paper, they are idiots; if they accept my paper, they are still idiots.” In other words, he had a very cynical view of the peer review process, even though he was one of the most famous attribution researchers (see his Google Scholar profile). Research on the review process also indicates that something needs to be done to clean up the persistent problems related to peer review (Kelly, et al., 2014; Mortimer, 2018).
By all objective metrices of academic success, I can be considered a successful psychologist, with an impact factor probably within the top one percent of living psychologists (see Paul T. P. Wong’s Google Scholar Profile). In addition, I was frequently invited to keynotes or lectures around the globe. But personally, I still do not feel like a success because of all the old scars and fresh wounds I wear and all the humiliation and ostracization I had to endure to be where I am now. Even now, I can still feel the invisible ceiling over my head. I often wonder what my career would look like if my surname was Smith rather than Wong, and my skin colour was white. I also wonder whether I would have been accepted into the elite psychology clubs if I was not Chinese.
Cathy Park Hong’s recent book Minor feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (2020) describes her experiences of discrimination as a Korean professor. I really resonate with her personal stories of racism. But she is a decorated award wining poet, and her publications are well received, whereas, my experiences are more painful, and my voice here is much more than ‘minor feelings’; it is more like an unheard cry, which ranges from the spontaneous cry of an agonized mind to the silent weeping of a wounded heart. But through it all, I have found a way to move forward with resilience and gratitude.
Indeed, I have come a long way from a depressed young refugee in Hong Kong during the 50’s to becoming a successful professor in Canada. I am most grateful for all the opportunities Canada has provided. My heart aches to see young Hong Kong students risking their lives and future in their futile struggles for freedom and democracy right now.
I am grateful that during my darkest hours of failure and despair, I was able to trust that God would see me through, as long as I still had the fire in my belly and my eye set on my calling of bringing hope and happiness to suffering people through psychology. It is my faith in the intrinsic value of my mission and my faith that God’s grace is sufficient for my weaknesses that has empowered me to overcome all the impossible odds (See my autobiography on drpaulwong.com).
Yes, as a minority in North America, we need to believe in a mission bigger than personal success, and never take No for an answer in order to realize our dreams, amid all the obstacles and discrimination. I am most gratified that my extensive experiences as a refugee and immigrant, along with my research on resilience and wellbeing have given me the necessary insight to help other suffering people in similar disadvantaged circumstances.
My Painful Experiences With Racial Discrimination
As a student, I was called out by a professor, who accused me of plagiarism simply because I was a student from Hong Kong. “You could not have possibly written such a beautiful essay,” he said, looking down at me through his bifocal suspiciously.
As a professor, one of my colleagues told me to learn how to write English from my colleagues who were native English speakers, even though I had more publications then they had. Some journal editors also told me to have my papers first corrected by someone whose first language was English, even though I tried to present important and original ideas clearly in each paper with impeccable grammar. My publications, which are open to public inspection (http://www.drpaulwong.com/writing/ ), attest to the quality of my writing. Yes, I am fully aware of my limitations in English writing, and I often wished that I could write better, but I also have the confidence that it is never so bad that it needs correcting from a native speaker.
Here is another angle about my writing. All those complaints about my English seem to be at odds with all the compliments I have received from professors and book reviewers. I often wonder whether their complaints about my writing were nothing more than knee-jerk reactions to my Chinese identity.
The same kind of discrimination also follows me when I apply for grants. For example, my grant proposal for research on the Resource-Congruence Model of Effective Coping (Wong, Reker & Peacock, 2006) was rejected, even though all the peer reviewers highly recommended acceptance. Only one person on the grant committee rejected it because he considered my use of a “80 decibel white noise” as an uncontrollable stressor was too aversive and unethical, even though my research proposal had passed the university’s research ethics board.
I appealed to the grant committee, stating that even the noisy street of downtown New York was higher than 80 decibels (Thompson, 2004). I even replaced the “noise stressor” with something less offensive. The committee continued to reject my proposal for three consecutive years.
In another painful incident, a white male resident in Peterborough wrote harmful letters to the Prime Minister of Canada, the Premier of Ontario, and the President of SSHRC, a federal granting agency, complaining of the waste of tax dollars to support my research on the stress and wellbeing of Chinese elderly in Canada (this research was eventually reported in Wong & Ujimoto, 1998). After this public complaint, I was never able to get another grant from that agency.
I could have cited many other cases of rejections for my grant applications on questionable grounds. But I did not give up on research and publication because I had the necessary resilience and perseverance to pursue a worthy mission. I was willing to fund my own research projects. Furthermore, I was not just fighting for my own survival, but for the survival of all the other minorities that come after me.
That is why I have been fighting against reviewer biases since the 80’s (Wong, 1981, 2017a, 2017b). I had repeatedly written to many presidents of the APA, making the case for the establishment of a presidential special task force to research and reform the peer review process and practices, but my appeal was repeatedly dismissed. They either ignored it or said that the system had already improved. Indeed, they had made some changes, such as the “blind review”, but the editor was never “blind” and was not immune to biases.
That is why I have also devoted my life in training others to be fair and competent reviewers (Publons, 2018). Lilian Jans-Beken is one of my success stories in mentoring young researchers to do peer review and research in existential gratitude (Publons, 2019). I envision the establishment of a non-profit Institute of Review, consisting of retired or professional reviewers who would provide competent and fair assessments purely on scientific merits.
My Struggle With Teaching
I love teaching. I have always identified myself as a teacher rather than a researcher (see my chapter on ‘once a teacher always a teacher’ on drpaulwong.com). But as a university professor, I had to overcome enormous challenges. I readily admit to the fact that I speak with a Chinese accent, but it is not kind or fair to complain that I refuse to improve or continuously remind me to speak with less of an accent. I also admit to having problems in enunciating certain syllables clearly. When my first assignment as a professor was to teach introductory psychology to a few hundred students in a large lecture theatre, I was apprehensive whether the young students would accept me.
As a person from a minority group with language deficiencies, I had to think of ways to compensate. The first course of action I took was to devote a lot of time and effort to produce good transparency sheets for the overhead projector, which served a similar function as today’s PowerPoint slides. These transparency sheets contained all the important information in my lecture, such as definitions, key concepts, main findings, and graphs. I even used colored markers to highlight certain points.
In addition, I took the trouble of remembering as many student names as I could. When I was able to address them by name in the large lecture hall, they were at least impressed with my effort of trying to know them as a person. I often called out individual names to ask them questions–this was one way to keep them alert.
My strength in teaching was that I was able to explain complex concepts in simple terms and provide real life examples to further illuminate their full meaning. It did not hurt when I was able to earn the reputation of the Johnny Carson of psychology (Johnny Carson was a famous stand-up comedian during 70’s and 80’s). I still have no idea how I did it because I never intended to make them laugh. But in spite of all my efforts, my teaching evaluation was never as good as some of the best teachers.
Even with all my efforts to improve my teaching effectiveness, it did not prevent race-based complaints. In one class, a white mature female student complained to the psychology department chair about the failing grade in her first essay, blaming my accent rather than herself; she had been out of school for about twenty years as a stay-at-home mom.
In my health psychology class, one student even complained in her evaluation that I was being sexist. This complaint was most likely a reaction to my lecture about the harmful effects of single mothers raising children (e.g., McLanahan, 2001), because I could remember seeing expressions of discomfort in some of my female students. The unfortunate part of this incident was that the student association, which was responsible for publishing the teaching evaluation results, singled out this negative comment for publication, while ignoring hundreds of other positive comments. When I appealed to the Dean, this gross misrepresentation was removed from Trent University’s public page, but the damage to my reputation had been done.
During my full-time teaching, I also received numerous poison-pen letters, telling me to “go home, China man, there is no room for you in Canada”, or to the administration that I was “anti-gay”, even though my first son was gay, and I was one of the few therapists who volunteered to provide counselling to gay people during the first wave of HIV crisis. I had been falsely accused of all kinds of things under the sun and I have accepted this as part of the price of living in a foreign land.
When I was nominated for a teaching award because of the high rating average, and many voluntary “thank you” letters, the university dean decided to give it to another professor. He told me, “you are good in teaching, but not good enough compared to some other professors.”
To me, the account above is more of a catharsis rather than victim-signaling. I just hope that those who come after me will not have to receive the same systematic discrimination and to be constantly told that, “you aren’t good enough compared to others.” I have not yet figured out in what ways I am not good enough in teaching or writing, other than being Chinese.
There are just far too many invisible and sinister obstacles in academia against Asian psychologists. Things may have improved in the last few years, because of the increasing recognition of indigenous psychology (Hwang, 2011). But there remains an implicit undercurrent of discrimination based on culture, language, worldviews, and different experienced realities, often leading to ostracization and marginalization. There is now increased research evidence showing that social isolation can be a painful and traumatic experience (e.g., Craig et al., 2020), which I still need to endure.
To make things worse, those in power often deny any discrimination and blame the victims for their alleged deficiencies in performance and/or personality. I can write an entire book about such experiences. Since there are no fair appeal mechanisms and no ombudsman in most academic situations, one just has to learn how to cope with unfair treatment and find ways to overcome racial traumas.
Maintaining One’s Authenticity Despite Discrimination
As a perennial outsider, nothing has changed for me in the last 5 decades in academia in terms of discrimination. The only thing that has changed in my life situation is my maturity in coping. As a retired professor, I no longer have the same pressure to publish or perish, and I no longer have to apply for research grants to justify my existence as a fulltime faculty.
My perspective has also changed. The only reason that I am still fully engaged in professional work as an 83-year old man is a sense of mission and fulfillment. I still believe that I have some unique insights and skills to improve mental health, especially for the marginalized, suffering people; such as the refugees, the chronically disabled, and victims of poverty or mental illness.
Five decades of research in all the major subdisciplines in psychology; from experimental, personality, neuroscience, and social psychology, to counselling and clinical psychology, coupled with many years of experience in the Christian ministry and clinical practice, have all uniquely prepared me to develop existential positive psychology (or PP 2.0) (Wong, 2019a) and meaning-centered therapy (Wong, 2016a).
My unique approach represents the integration of mainstream psychology, Chinese indigenous psychology (Wong, 2016b), and my experience and research in religion/spirituality (Wong, 1998; Wong & McDonald 2002; Wong et al., 2012). My heart’s strongest desire right now is to pass on all my knowledge and skills to many young researchers and clinicians. That is why I am still working with a number of graduate and postdoc students.
When the funding opportunity came up for Gratitude to God research recently (see https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Gratitude-to-God-Requests-for-Proposals.pdf ), I immediately asked one of my post docs, Lilian Jans-Beken, to apply and provided her with many of my ideas on gratitude to God (Wong, 2020).
Existential gratitude, as I initially conceptualized, consists of two components – existential and spiritual. Our first collaboration focused on the existential component (Jans-Beken & Wong, 2019). I thought that she would also be interested in my concept of God according to the Judeo-Christian tradition. I was grateful that she was very honest and direct in telling me that she was only interested in doing more research with existential gratitude, and she did not feel comfortable going down the path as I had laid out because she identifies as an atheist.
I perfectly understood her predicament and took it as an opportunity for me to write a separate proposal on the adaptive benefits of gratitude to God in adverse situations because such funding only comes once in my lifetime. Perhaps, this represented the perennial pulling of the heartstrings to glorify God and serve humanity. In spite of much hard work and prayer, my Letter of Intent (LOI) for a research grant on Gratitude to God was rejected. I thought that this time, my chance of success would be higher because this is an area of my expertise, and I am now an established researcher who has mentored numerous young researchers and postdocs. My paper on How to write a research proposal (Wong, 2002) has remained No. 1 in Google scholar for more than 20 years and is officially used by many graduate schools. Therefore, I should know how to write a LOI and a good grant proposal.
My expertise in gratitude comes from a lifetime of spiritual quest and practice. To paraphrase St. Augustine’s well known quote that “You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”, I would say: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and blessed us with everything we need, but our heart feels empty and unhappy, until it is filled with gratitude and offers you thanksgiving for your goodness and grace”.
I believe that feeling and appreciating gratitude is an integral part of the healthy aspects of human nature. That is why Viktor Frankl (1985) made an appreciation of what happens to us as one of the three royal roads to meaning and happiness. That is why I have emphasized that embracing suffering and expressing gratitude are necessary for human flourishing (Wong, 2019a), as described in Figure 1 (which was posted on my Facebook recently).
Embracing suffering and expressing gratitude are necessary for human flourishing
I also believe that I have insight into the two important psychological functions of gratitude: (a) Reorienting our life attitude away from the self towards others and God as in self-transcendence; and (b) Shifting from complaining about what we don’t have towards being thankful for what we do have and moving toward its source as in appreciation and gratitude.
This is my spiritual understanding of why gratitude and faith are the two cornerstones for PP 2.0. That is why I believe that gratitude to God should be an essential part of gratitude research and interventions (Jans-Beken & Wong, 2019; Wong, 2016a).
The result of my LOI for this grant was again, rejection. The letter of rejection simply said that there were too many good applications, and unfortunately mine was not selected, with no reasons given. The message communicated by the privileged white group to me is always the same: You are not good enough.
At first, I felt the same sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach, the same sadness in my heart and the same search for an answer, but with less intensity. This time, although the rejection was unpleasant, I was able to take it with equanimity and a mature sense of gratitude because of my new perspective mentioned earlier. I am really curious to know in what ways all other accepted LOI were judged superior to mine in terms of scientific merits, such as investigator’s competence, the significance and innovation of the proposed research, and the potential impact in terms of the heuristic value for research and application. One may see the actual LOI of my grant application on my website (See Wong, 2020) and decide whether my proposed research is worthy of support.
Recently, I answered a call to submit a brief paper to help people cope with COVID-19 for a special issue in The Journal of Humanistic Psychology. I eagerly submitted a paper based on Frankl’s logotherapy. Since I am already a recognized authority on Frankl, I thought this brief paper would be accepted. Again, I was proven wrong. It was rejected with no chance for revision, because “the manuscript expresses a great deal of certainty and prescriptive advice… and overly positive and optimistic tone.” Frankl used to receive similar criticisms (Pytell, 2020). Therefore, the reason for rejection was not because that my paper did not meet the original objective of helping people, but because it was judged to be inconsistent with the orthodox view of psychology.
All my accumulated experiences of discrimination have shown me that most of the time, rejection was based on the following kinds of discrimination:
- Institutional bias – prestigious universities are favoured.
- Racial/cultural bias – mainstream psychology remains Eurocentric.
- Theoretical bias– conformity dominant views is preferred to revolutionary ideas as desc The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1962).
- Insider-outside bias – well known researchers of an elite club are favoured over outsiders.
- Age discrimination – against old people.
The first 4 type of bias have been well documented (Haffar, Bazerbachi & Murad, 2019; Hewstone, Rubin & Willis, 2002). Ageism has been much researched (Burnes et al., 2019; Harris, Krygsman, Waschenko & Rudman, 2018), but age bias in peer review has not drawn much attention. I have the uneasy feeling that once you are over 80, your peers may automatically not consider you for research grants or even research ethic approval.
Recently, I have experienced still new form of discrimination based on left-wing political correctness. My postdocs and I started a multinational research on coping with COVID-19, involving 30 nations. I applied to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of Trent University for ethical clearance. The first Co-chair from the Nursing Department was very impressed with our research. After a long telephone conversation, she even considered joining me as part of this multinational research. Unfortunately, the second Co-chair from Sociology Department refused to grant ethical clearance until all other participating universities from other countries had also approved the project. I protested her requirement as unreasonable, because if every country made similar demands, then the project would never get off the ground. Besides, such a demand was contrary to the spirit of international cooperation in human research that all participating countries were equal.
She further demanded that we should not collect any data from Canada without her ethical approval. This was also an unreasonable demand because our invitation for research participation was posted on social media and international newsletters, and people from any county were free to take part; it would be unethical and impractical to include a notice in all our announcements that everyone could take part except Canadians. This would amount to preventing Canada from being part of the multinational study.
To make things worse, she issued a letter of rejection just one day before I sent her a rational defense of my ethic application as consistent with the highest standard of protecting participants rights and welfare. My research partners could not understand why she put up such obstacles to bar me from conducting this multinational research. Since I don’t have any personal enemy at Trent, the only plausible explanation was either age discrimination or ideological bias; she might have used IRB as a weapon to punish me for supporting Jordan Peterson in a series of articles on decoding Jordan Peterson on www.drpaulwong.com and my favourable book review of his 12 Rules for Life (Wong, 2019b). During my days at Trent, the sociology department was widely known as a hotbed for campus Marxism. Perhaps, things have not changed in their ideology. Even if my conjecture was not correct, her rejection of a study that has been approved by all the participating universities in the US and Europe is still a violation of Trent’s IRB’s mandate.
Hong (2020) stated that she had “some scores to settle …. With this country, with how we have been scripted” (p. 118). Hong also wrote about her minor feelings “when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a state of cognitive dissonance” (56).
I too have some scores to settle with North America: How Asian psychologists are expected to conform to the narrative of “a model minority” and how we are silenced and marginalized when we dare to speak up. This paper represents one of my efforts to transform the academic culture to make it more inclusive.
Some Ideas on Successful Integration
As a graduate student, I already learnt how to become successful in academia. The broad road to success includes the following:
- Do your dissertation in a very famous lab because you will be assured of a good start in your academic career.
- Devote more time to research than teaching. Good teaching never gets you very far, but success in publications and getting big research grants will give you promotions, fame, and wealth.
- Join the hit parade of the day instead of blazing new trials. However, there is also the risk that the fads in psychology are impermanent. For example, behaviourism has been replaced by cognitive science.
- Stay in one area until you become one of the top researchers in that area.
- Never offend leaders in psychology because they may ruin your career.
Unfortunately, it is not in my nature to follow the above advice. Furthermore, most of the dominant ideas in American psychology are contrary to my life experiences in Asia and my beliefs of what psychology is all about. I know that my lifelong pursuit of meaning and resilience is timeless, especially because my ultimate concern is helping suffering people to be more resistant to stress and finding meaning and happiness in adversity.
My ongoing debate with dominant views includes:
(1) Locus of control. It is best presented by two independent dimensions rather than two opposite poles of the same continuum (Wong & Sproule, 1984 ). This dual-dimension analysis can also be applied to positive and negative emotions.
(2) Learned helplessness vs. learned resourcefulness (Wong, 1995).
(3) Avoiding the inevitable suffering vs. embracing it (Wong, 2019a).
History will have the finale verdict on whether the majority view or my minority view is correct. But I am pretty sure that if my views were advocated by a white professor in a major university, they might have become the dominant view.
I have never deviated from this narrow path because I must be true to my cultural beliefs and core values, even if it meant that sometimes I had to step on the toes of powerful people in psychology and suffered the consequences. I am pleased that recently, more people are willing to accept my view and cite my publications as indicated on Google Scholar. I only hope that the future of Western academia would be more receptive to and kinder to Asian psychologists who happen to see life differently.
Another challenge I faced was that I could not be wedded to one area or one method. I have kept my ear to the ground and listened to people about their most pressing needs. I am always willing to learn with an open mind about better ways to achieve a worthy goal from different theoretical perspectives. As a result, I was not able to stay in just one field. I was able to do significant research and get it published in many APA journals, such as Experimental Psychology, Journal of Social and Personality, Psychology of Aging, Educational Psychology, and Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. As a result, I am known in many fields of psychology, but I am not among the best known in any field. However, I am content to be one of the few psychologists willing to take this holistic and integrative approach.
Finally, it is still important for an Asian psychologist to work harder and be better in order to get the same recognition. We may never have a level playing field. But I am grateful that in a democratic country, progress in social justice is always a possibility. Therefore, we need to constantly improve ourselves as individuals, and continue to strive towards diversity and inclusiveness.
Psychology is a wonderful field and being a professor is a wonderful occupation. I am grateful to have the privilege of spending most of my adult life in a tenured faculty, in spite of my many bad encounters with discrimination.
Looking at my children, I can see that they have many close friends who are white. Our society has definitely become more diverse than my generation. I believe that we can do even better if we continue on the path of inclusiveness. But the current COVID-19 epidemic and the anti-Chinese sentiment from the Trump administration are again stroking the fire of discrimination against Chinese researchers. Hope that this paper contributes to the awareness of the unheard cry of Asian researchers.
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Wong, P. T. P. (2020, September 24). The Unheard Cry of a Successful Asian Psychologist. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 154(8), 619-631. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2020.1820430