How WEIRDness Skews Our Understanding of Human Nature
If you are reading this at Little Green Footballs, the chances of you being WEIRD yourself are pretty high.
Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan first survey some of the evidence that Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic subjects – more specifically, University undergrads – are disproportionately the empirical foundation for claims being made, either explicitly or implicitly, about human nature. The evidence here is pretty staggering, even for someone like me who is suspicious of psychology for precisely this reason.
A recent survey by Arnett (2008) of the top journals in six sub-disciplines of psychology revealed that 68% of subjects were from the US and fully 96% from ‘Western’ industrialized nations (European, North American, Australian or Israeli). That works out to a 96% concentration on 12% of the world’s population (Henrich et al. 2010: 63). Or, to put it another way, you’re 4000 times more likely to be studied by a psychologist if you’re a university undergraduate at a Western university than a randomly selected individual strolling around outside the ivory tower.
Moreover, psychology is disproportionately American, and especially English-speaking, even compared to other scientific fields. 70% of all psych citations originate from US research institutions, compared with 37% in a field like chemistry, and the top four countries for psychology citations are all English speaking.
Despite the skewed sampling, psychologists seldom offer cautionary notes about the source of their data or its potential cultural boundedness, and likely would be testy if the cross-culturally critical among us suggested that they retitle their publications to reflect the source of their information: such as, the Journal of Experimental Psychology in High-Enrollment American Research Universities: Undergraduate Psychology Students’ Perception and Performance, a personal favourite. Henrich and colleagues do a good job of pointing out where there are exceptions to the pattern, and many of the authors of comments have been leaders in trying to implement broader, cross-cultural sampling, but the pattern is pretty pronounced in spite of noteworthy exceptions.
Henrich and colleagues then go on to use existing studies to contrast WEIRD subjects with other sorts of people on a series of increasingly close, ‘telescoping’ contrasts: first, they compare industrialized and ‘small-scale’ societies in areas such as visual perception, fairness, cooperation, folkbiology, and spatial cognition. The authors then highlight the contrast of ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ populations on measures such as social behaviour, self-concepts, self-esteem, agency (a sense of having free choice), conformity, patterns of reasoning (holistic v. analytic), and morality.
The authors then examine how Americans specifically stand out from other subject pools in comparative research to highlight how the specific dominance of US subject pools in psychological research might skew our understanding. In particular, Henrich and colleagues survey the issue of individualism, choice, and other outlying US traits. This section is among the thinnest in the article, but it is still full of suggestive data, especially for those of us who are sensitized to the dissimilarities glossed over in the catch-all term, ‘Western’ (my Australian wife and I, a Yank, frequently find ourselves contending with Oz-Sepo contrasts in daily life, even though Australia and the US would typically be considered quite similar ‘Western’ cultures).
Finally, Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan contrast the Americans who typically wind up as psychology subjects with the whole population of the US, highlighting the diversity among adult Americans in such area as social behaviour, moral reasoning, cooperation, fairness, performance on IQ tests and analytical abilities. US undergraduates exhibit demonstrable differences, not only from non-university educated Americans, but even from previous generations of their own families.