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WEIRD findings point to flaws in research

The next time an article in a science journal posits a general theory of human behaviour, view its conclusions skeptically.

BY LAURA EGGERTSON | OCT 12 2010

The research is likely based on WEIRD science. That’s because 96 percent of the subjects that professors use for their research are WEIRDos – people from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies, say Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan. The three University of British Columbia professors coined the term after investigating whether the behaviour of this small slice of the population actually generalizes across humanity.

Specifically, the odds that an American undergraduate will have participated in any study published in a major psychology journal, rather than a subject from any other culture or economic class, are 4000:1, says Dr. Heine, a professor of psychology. “That would not be an issue if it was the case that one person’s head was as good as another’s,” he says. “We think that’s not a viable assumption.”

In June, the three professors published an article in the journal Behavioural and Brain Sciences entitled “The weirdest people in the world?” They examined comparable databases looking at visual perception, fairness and cooperation in economic decision making, reasoning and spatial cognition, among other domains. The trio’s review indicates that not only does cultural context influence the way that people behave, but WEIRDos are a particularly exceptional sample.

“American samples are probably the most individualistic populations on the planet,” says Dr. Heine. “They’re more extreme in their response for many of these domains.”

So while psychologists know a lot about the psychology of North American undergraduates, their theories are questionable as they extend to other cultures and contexts.

Since publishing the paper, Dr. Heine says he’s become all too aware of the implications of his own research. After urging others to recruit from a wider subject pool than just the “available, agreeable and cheap” students on their campuses, he’s obliged to widen his own recruitment attempts. One way to do that is to collaborate more with researchers in other countries, which requires more administrative work – and costs more.

“It’s pushing us to do some research in ways that isn’t always easy or convenient. And this is annoying for me, too,” he says with a laugh.

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