Friday, November 20, 2009

The weirdest people in the world?

Many broad claims about human behavior are based on experiments done samples drawn from western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies (i.e. WEIRD - the subjects of psychological experiments are mainly U.S. college undergraduates!). Henrich et al. argue in a Brain and Behavioral Sciences preprint (PDF here) that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of our species - frequent outliers. Here is their abstract:
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.


  1. Deric,

    I've been concerned about this ever since I ran my first experimental study while in graduate school in the 1970s (with WEIRD subjects of course). But what do we do about this?

  2. Probably not much. It is way too expensive for most university researchers to really go into the field... nearby undergraduates are way cheaper.