Psychological research conducted in WEIRD nations may not apply to global populations

Jun 30, 2010

A new University of British Columbia study says that an overreliance on research subjects from the U.S. and other Western nations can produce false claims about human psychology and behavior because their psychological tendencies are highly unusual compared to the global population.

According to the study, the majority of psychological research is conducted on subjects from Western nations, primarily university students. Between 2003 and 2007, 96 per cent of psychological samples came from countries with only 12 per cent of the world's populations. The U.S. alone provided nearly 70 per cent of these subjects.

However, the study finds significant psychological and behavioral differences between what the researchers call Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies and their non-WEIRD counterparts across a spectrum of key areas, including , fairness, spatial and moral reasoning, memory and conformity.

The findings, published in Nature tomorrow and Behavioral Sciences this week, raise questions about the practice of drawing universal claims about human psychology and behavior based on research samples from WEIRD societies.

"The foundations of human psychology and behavior have been built almost exclusively on research conducted on subjects from WEIRD societies," says UBC Psychology and Economics Prof. Joe Henrich, who led the study with UBC co-authors Prof. Steven Heine and Prof. Ara Norenzayan. "While students from Western nations are a convenient, low-cost data pool, our findings suggest that they are also among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans."

The study, which reviews the comparative database of research from across the behavioural sciences, finds that subjects from WEIRD societies are more individualistic, analytic, concerned with , existentially anxious and less conforming and attentive to context compared to those from non-WEIRD societies.

According to the study, significant psychological and behavioral differences also exist between population groups within WEIRD nations. For example, U.S. undergraduate students are typically more analytic and choosy and less conforming than U.S. adults without college educations.

"Researchers often implicitly assume that there is little variation across human populations or that these 'standard subjects' are as representative of the species as any other population," says Henrich. "Our study shows there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations. In fact, there is enough evidence that researchers cannot in good faith continue to make species-generalizing claims about Homo sapiens in the absence of comparative evidence."

The research team calls on universities, peer reviewers, funding agencies and journal editors to push researchers to explicitly support any generalizations to the species with evidence or potent inductive arguments. Additionally, they envision the creation of research partnerships with non-WEIRD institutions to further and expand and diversify the empirical base of the .

Explore further: Researchers use computer-based treatment for children with anxiety

More information: View the study, "The weirdest people in the world?," and comprehensive commentary by the authors and colleagues in the research community at: journals.cambridge.org/action/… ueId=2-3&iid=7825832
An opinion piece by the authors will appear in the journal Nature on July 1.

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jsa09
5 / 5 (1) Jun 30, 2010
This study... - all I can say is about time. For too long result have been published stating facts that were not in evidence.

From now on all those studies that say people will behave like X this under Y circumstances need to be linked to time and place of study and age and sex of subjects.

All results that have been generalized may be close to correct but the behavioral scientific results are a not universal results. Once the results are placed in the correct context for publication and the context must accompany the data, because once these are separated the results lose an important context binding stability.
SMMAssociates
not rated yet Jul 01, 2010
My problem with this, although I generally agree with it, is when such differences are used to aid or excuse improper behavior by any standard because "they don't know any better". Too much of that....

That little Freddie doesn't understand the idea of having a bathroom in his own apartment v.s. using a common facility in the hallway (or outside) is not an excuse for stealing a neighbor's goods....

Changing the test to better reflect repeatable and accurate results is the goal, not just skipping them entirely, or reformulating them to "help". Do you really want to be treated by a Surgeon who can't spell it?

GSwift7
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 01, 2010
The make-up of the researchers themselves and their own cultural biases will have as great an impact on the results as the data set. The same can be said about other people involved in the processes of research also, for example the people who write policy, the people who decide where money is spent, and the people who control what gets published and what doesn't. There's lots of room for bias all accross the system. You see it every field, not just psychology. History is a big victim of cultural bias, for example, as well as climate change.

I'm strongly in favor of what this article suggests, but apply it to all fields of research, not just psychology.