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Are We All the Same? WEIRD Science

Jonathan B. Wight

The January/February issue of Foreign Policy has an article by Joshua E. Keating summarizing the state of experiments in psychological sciences (“WEIRD Science”).  Over the period 2003 to 2007 a "whopping 96% [of studies came] from Western, industrialized countries.”   That is, psychological experiments were performed largely on students from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies.

Keating points out that “WEIRDos tend to be more individualistic and more competitive than people from non-industrialized Asian and African societies…. Westerners -- and Americans in particular -- are far more likely to look out for themselves.”  Cultural differences apparently affect even studies of visual perception, with Westerners doing more poorly on some dimensions. 

Are we victims of WEIRD science?


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Behavioral and Brain Sciences had a symposium on the WEIRD science issue last year:

The target article was titled "The weirdest people in the world?" by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan - the abstract follows:

Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world's top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior – hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

One of the replies was by prominent philosopher of mind Stephen Stich, who agrees with the thrust of the target article - very interesting stuff!

Excellent, many thanks!

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