The science of psychology is dedicated to the understanding of the brain and its impacts on human behavior. Part of learning is experimenting to find answers to questions. As it is impossible to test everyone to find the truth, studies rely on samples that they hope will be representative of the overall population. This is known as external validity, meaning that the conclusions of a study may be generalized to the global population. Ideally, the sample population will be diverse enough to increase the external validity.
In actuality, there seems to be a trend in psychology studies that make their external validity WEIRD.
WEIRD is an acronym that stands for western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic; it defines the most common traits of the countries study participants come from. Western refers to places in the Western Hemisphere, predominantly the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, the UK, and most of Europe. These places are also industrialized, basing their economies on manufacturing and technology, and their governments are more democratically organized. Subjects described as “educated” means participants are undergraduate students at universities, which is the majority of the reason why they are classified as “rich” as well.
According to analysis, at least 80% of psychology study samples are WEIRD. However, they only represent 12% of the global population.
It has been theorized by Dr. Joseph Henrich, Dr. Steven J. Heine, and Dr. Ara Norenzayan in their 2010 report “The weirdest people in the world?”, and supported by replicated studies over the past decade, that the overrepresentation of WEIRD populations is due to the large number of studies done on college campuses by professors and students.
When professors, graduate and doctoral students, and other research positions are experimenting, the easiest and most convenient population is the one that exists on campus. This is especially true with the sampling of other psychology students, who can be compensated for their time with extra credit in their classes. This makes for an oversaturation of American and Western European college students as the participants of studies that seek to understand the psychology of the global population.
The missing representation rears its head when scientists conduct the same research and experiments on non-WEIRD populations, the results don’t match the original study. It may be more accurate to say that WEIRD societies are outliers, skewing our perception of the human mind.
This raises a major concern in psychology: are the conclusions that have already been found truly supported on a global level? It’s difficult to know for sure what variations across cultures influence the findings of studies without retesting every hypothesis.
Over the past decade, since Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan’s initial report that rocked the foundations of psychology, scientists are becoming more aware of the issues that stem from a lack of representation in sample groups.
While this acronym has its benefits, the traits used do not consider every issue. Some critics claim that the WEIRD model is only just cracking the surface of the sampling biases prevalent in psychology. Other factors include race, ethnicity, and religion; and there are plenty of nuances left unspecified under the current labels.
All markers of a person’s identity are lenses through which they perceive, and are perceived by, the world. The intersections between identities create new experiences that are unique to such an overlap. And this is why it is vital that when studying human thoughts, behaviors, and actions, we study a population of people diverse enough to attempt to account for all the variations of human experiences.
This article has been republished from Renewed Awareness Magazine.