I’m Not WEIRD…(But You Probably Are)

I know some folks think I’m weird.  I’ll confess to being eccentric, but I’m not WEIRD.  Most of you probably are (WEIRD, not eccentric).

WEIRD is an acronym I came across in an article about psychology experiments and the conclusions drawn from them.  Seems many of those conclusions are suspect because the participants were typically members of a WEIRD society:  White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

Since I was born and raised in the Philippines, I’m definitely not WEIRD. Most of you are probably WEIRD.  And U.S. college undergraduate students are definitely WEIRD (and often weird too).  That latter group supposedly accounts for some 65% of the participants in all U.S. psychology studies.

Some other psychology researchers wisely decided to investigate the results of psychology studies conducted with folks who were not WEIRD. Their findings: those college students are not representative of responses from folks in non-WEIRD societies. Duuuuuh!

Consequently, many behaviors and beliefs presumed to be “universal” are now recognized as perhaps attributable only to WEIRD societies.  For example, most American undergrads will say that a line segment with an outward pointing arrow is longer than an identical segment with an inward pointing arrow.  Why? Because their environment has many right angles.  That “optical illusion” is not reported by hunter-gather tribe of Africans, who identify both lines as equal in length.

Then, there’s the classic “share the wealth” scenario.  One person has a sum of money which must be divided with another person.  If the other person rejects the split, neither receives anything.  American undergrads given $10 usually offer $4 or $5 and the recipient will typically reject anything less than $3.  But when this scenario is conducted in small, non-industrial societies, an offer of $2.50 is typical and just as typically accepted.  So much for a “universal” concept of “fairness.”

Other studies with non-WEIRD societies indicate that it is not “universal” to be financially risk-averse, or to be motivated to work harder at a task you have had some choice.  When a trusted person makes a choice for them, Asians are very motivated. Even a fondess for sugar is not “universal.”

Psychology…..in the U.S., it is definitely “WEIRD” science.  But I’m not WEIRD,  so make no presumptions about me!

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16 responses to “I’m Not WEIRD…(But You Probably Are)

  1. So I guess technically you are only EI? (Though comparatively speaking, I might say you are EIR). I, on the other hand, am WEID. Unless you compare me to a similar person in a non-industrial society, then I would definitely be WEIRD. I am also weird, but I thought I was doing a good job of hiding it 🙂 Great post!

    • I believe that WEIRD applies to the “society” although if you are an individual from a WEIRD society who also meets all the criteria then you are possibly more likely to answer “as expected.”

  2. I was a WEIRD experimental subject in college. They put me in a soundproof booth and showed me pictures. I still have no idea what the hell happened.

  3. Spencer – you have indeed hit upon one of the great hidden secrets about psychological research. It is something that we “insiders” know about – but we generally don’t talk about it. The vast majority of psychological research is done on college undergraduates – most of who are required to participate as part of their General Psychology course – thus the study population is even smaller than you suggest. On the animal side, the college undergraduate is replaced by the white rat – who is also required to participate by virtue of being in a cage.

    We KNOW that these are not representative samples of the general population. We KNOW that many results do not generalize beyond our narrow samples. When I teach methods courses I make sure students are aware of this problem.

    We know about the problem – but do we do anything about it? Of course not. Why? It is both expensive and inconvenient to broaden the subject pool. Undergraduates in Gen Psych are a captive audience and are available at low cost – moving away from that population often requires one to travel, and requires that subjects be paid for their participation. Likewise, it costs a lot more to house orangutans in your lab than it does rats…..

    In fairness, there are robust sub-fields of cross-cultural psychology (for human research) and comparative psychology (for animal research) that do attempt to move beyond the traditional populations – but these sub-fields are much smaller than the “mainstream” of research.

    It is an ironic thing – we spend a lot of time in classes teaching our students about sampling biases – and then we turn around and build such biases into the majority of our research studies.

    • Hmmm… I guess this begs the question that if the sample is so narrow and the results cannot be generalized, what “value” is there in such studies?

      • Hmmm… I guess this begs the question that if the sample is so narrow and the results cannot be generalized, what “value” is there in such studies?

        A detailed answer to that question would require a long discussion of the history of Psychology. The simple answer is that Psychology was highly Eurocentric in its origins and really didn’t care much for other regions of the globe – except for the attempts to characterize the rest of the world as inferior.

        The realization that culture matters is recent – and methods are rather entrenched.

        This having been said – I think that some studies do reveal (relatively) universal truths. But – knowing which do and which don’t isn’t so obvious ahead of time.

  4. Aha! Reading this thread reminds me why I threw my rat out the 4th floor window in Psych Lab and changed my major. (It was to be one of several changes:) )

    • I threw my rat out the 4th floor window in Psych Lab and changed my major.

      Wow…. if you indeed did that it is a good thing that you weren’t in my rat lab class. Not only would you have failed the course, I would have tried to have you expelled. Hmmmm…. maybe there is a reason most animal labs are in basements…..

    • At least you didn’t have to dissect it!

      Dissecting a frog in biology, in high school, it began to come out of the anesthesia and it was quite traumatic….

  5. The good thing is…maybe the rat survived the fall? Unknown whether it had any rat instincts left and could run away and feed itself or survive the attacks by its brown brothers, esp. depending on what the experiment was on it anyway. I think I can safely say that the ptfan1 of today would never have done something like this. He could speak for himself, but today is the first game of the season for FSU and he is somewhere in the stands screaming for FSU to beat this team no one ever heard of.

  6. I almost forgot…this has inspired a blog from me about my experiences with lab animals, not in psych, but in biology.

  7. LOL FN has my back:) The rat wouldn’t eat during my lab period, the GA thought it funny and wouldn’t give me another 1 so I couldn’t complete the lab assignments. This went on for several weeks despite my protests. I just assumed that the GA was feeding him and conducting his own experiment on me, so I took control of the situation. No one saw me do it and there was no corpse so I got another rat, but by that time I had changed my plans to be a shrink. And after taking 4 years of German too………

    Perhaps the statue of limitations has expired on this act, if not well I guess I could give back my diploma.

    Be kinda difficult to expel me now……..

    • PT said: The rat wouldn’t eat during my lab period, the GA thought it funny and wouldn’t give me another….

      I would tell you GA was an idiot – but there was a time when I was younger that I might have done the same. U used to tell my students that “there are no stupid rats – only stupid experimenters…” I believed that any time a student failed to get a rat to press a bar it was the fault of the student, not the rat.

      Then one semester I had a student who absolutely could not get her rat to press the bar. It was getting close to mid semester and everyone else was far ahead of her. So, thinking I would prove my point, I gave her a new rat. She had it bar pressing in about 10 minutes.

      She went on to become a Psychology professor herself (different specialty, of course) – and I occasionally run into her. She and I still laugh about it….

  8. Yes, pt, I am your friend, despite occasional indications to the contrary! I also meant to say that knowing the pt of old, you would never have admitted to it 🙂 And German? Odd…I took 3 years of German in college, for no reason other than it was considered to be hard and I was all about proving how smart I was. Plus I was required to take a language, and I was sick of French. I have to admit that it came in handy the year after I graduated when my psych prof boyfriend and I became lost in the Balkans.

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