WEIRD subjects for psychological studies—or is it just us?
Neuroanthropology tackles a recent psychology article which highlights the fact that the vast majority of research is done on Western students, who, in global terms, are a very unusual subgroup of the human race.
This group has been given the catchy acronym WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) although the problem is not so much that students are being studied but that researchers tend to draw conclusions about ‘human nature’ from this data, seemingly unaware of how unrepresentative they are of the world’s population.
The Neuroanthropology has an interesting take on the debate, noting that although important, the differences highlighted by the original article may also be a result of cultural bias themselves:
For example, when I brought one of my Brazilian subjects to an American university at which I previously taught, his characterization of the American students’ differences from young Brazilians with whom he had more contact focused on none of these traits (W. E. I. R. or D.). He was more struck by their large size (both height and BMI, to put it nicely), their frumpy androgynous clothing (anyone here not wearing a sweatshirt?), their materialism, their clumsiness and physical ineptitude, and their ethnic and personal homogeneity. If my Brazilian colleague were to characterize the oddness of the WEIRD, he wouldn’t focus on the traits Henrich and colleagues have chosen in their designation…
I don’t think that my point is a fundamental disagreement with Henrich and colleagues, but a concern that the parameter of difference we choose to highlight, even in the simplest designation, might itself be a culturally-generated bias. Anthropologists are well acquainted with having our subjects point to traits that are invisible to the Western research as ‘the crucial’ characteristic for understanding the gap. For example, ‘rich’ may seem an obvious contrast to poverty, but we know that not all ‘poverty’ is the same, nor are all ‘rich’ people able to experience in the same way their material situation. Some economists have argued that inequality is more crucial for understanding the experience of deprivation, for example, than absolute wealth. And poor populations often fix, not on their material deprivation, but on other qualities to describe their difference from the wealthy (or the WEIRD). For example, religious differences, family dynamics, or caste might be salient to people from other cultural backgrounds.
This blind spot seems quite pervasive which is only something that has become clear to me since working in Latin America. For example, most science is published in English and reviewers of scientific papers will often suggest tests or analyses which don’t exist or aren’t relevant to a Spanish speaking population.
Furthermore, journal editors rarely feel it necessary to recruit reviewers familiar with the culture in which the study was completed, assuming that American or European experience applies ‘globally’.
For example, a researcher from London or New York would never have their work assessed by someone who had no knowledge of psychological assessments in those countries but this happens all the time to cognitive scientists from the rest of the world, meaning much less of this work gets published.
There is also the ‘world music’ effect, where anything from America or Europe is considered mainstream where anything from the rest of the world is considered to be about ‘culture’.
The Neuroanthropology piece is an in-depth discussion of the whether psychology research has a truly global vision, and, most importantly, where our unrecognised blind spots may lie.