Subjects of Psychology Studies Are WEIRD

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Gareth Cook writes in the Boston Globe about why the findings of psychology studies may not be universally applicable as we thought—they’re usually conducted on a very small sliver of the population:

“One survey of top journals by a researcher at Clark University found that two-thirds of the studies used American psychology undergrads as their sole subjects. This means that grand claims about human nature are based on the behavior of a narrow group of educated, relatively wealthy people at a particular moment in their lives.

Put another way, the subjects of psychology are WEIRD — they are Western and Educated, and they come from Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies, says University of British Columbia scholar Joseph Henrich. Working with two colleagues, he has found strong evidence that human psychology varies around the planet in fundamental ways.

For example, one of the lessons of modern psychology is that people work hard, sometimes unconsciously, to maintain a positive image of themselves; another is that most people tend to rate their own abilities as above average. But when you venture into other societies, these effects fade or disappear.

It turns out that in these ways, and in many ways, the psychology of Americans is at the extreme edge of a spectrum, and that the only group which is even more of an outlier is a strange tribe known as the American undergraduate. ‘If there was one group you wouldn’t want to use’ to understand human psychology, says Henrich, ‘it would be American undergraduates.’” Read more here.

This is not to say we should dismiss the results of such studies—just that we should be careful about generalizing them to all people, everywhere.

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