Home > Papers > Behavioral & Brain Sciences: The WEIRDest People in the World

Behavioral & Brain Sciences: The WEIRDest People in the World

Heinrich, Heine, and Norenzayan publish a fantastic paper examining the assumptions about the generalizability of psychological findings from mostly American undergraduates. They bring up fantastic examples demonstrating the cognitive relativism throughout all sorts of levels of perception and action to suggest that using WEIRD subjects (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) is probably not easily or freely generalizable.

For example – The Mueller-Lyer line-length ‘illusion’? Used to make universal claims about human perception? Not an illusion for some cultures, who grew up in a context not dominated by right angles. Even preconscious perception is apparently shaped by experience.

Ultimatum game behavior research used to claim that ‘fairness’ is a human universal, perhaps evolved trait – Fehr & Gächter, 1998; Hoffman, McCabe, & Smith, 1998 – seems to also be displayed in WEIRDs, but this behavior is an extreme outlier compared to other groups.

The examples go on – 20 pages of references, and very fun to read.

PDF link.

Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers—often implicitly—assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species—frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior—hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

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