Psychology’s unhealthy obsession with the WEIRDest people in the world

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It’s not that strange when you consider the fact that is the demographic they’re coming from and the demographic they’re treating.


It goes way beyond strange though when someone trained with that population as its standard then looks at someone who falls outside of that weird range and spots all manner pathology and dysfunctional behavior. The current redemptive belief is that cultural awareness training is now being required to maintain licensure. I wonder who puts these cultural awareness programs together. It really pisses me off because this is my professional field.


I’m looking in from outside, but given that is there any chance we’re going to see psychology split up? I assume it’s hard enough to keep track of people’s heads when you do fall into that range. Probably more around the EIRD portion than the W one, I imagine.


By split up I mean along that type of lines “I specialize in educated people from industrialized countries”, etc.


If you read a basic textbook on psychological testing (Kaplan 2013 or similar) you will find a lot on the desirability of test norming in different populations for validity. Unfortunately it’s not always easy to get science funding and WEIRD people are readily available where researchers are …

But I also suspect that as societies become affluent enough to want or need psychology they’ll also become closer to WEIRD in the process.


Or not…

The primary study quoted in the interview was between Americans and Japanese; both affluent societies but with very different social structures…


Of course, the internet is also a way to break down these barriers, as it provides a way for researchers to reach out and sample a population beyond the traditional “whatever undergraduates happen to be nearby” method. If you want to be part of the solution to this problem a good place to start is:, which lists a huge number of links to ongoing experiments.


I find podcasts have a much lower bandwidth than reading, so tend not to listen to them (sorry). I just took it that the discussion was about this paper —which sparked the WEIRD thing— and is about results of psychological testing across variety of cultures:

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral And Brain Sciences, (2-3), 61. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999152X

That paper notes the largest differences are between urban and industrial societies versus rural and agrarian or hunter gatherer societies. In the areas of “social decision making, independent versus interdependent self-concepts, analytic versus holistic reasoning, and moral reasoning.” it finds “the behaviors measured … are strongly correlated with the strength of formal institutions, norms of civic cooperation, and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita.” …which bears out my suspicion.

Likewise, the fact that IQ has been increasing worldwide in the analytical domain of the standard intelligence tests implies that that form of intelligence —which is highly represented in a WEIRD demographic— is increasing with urbanisation, affluence and economic development.

What was the study that tested Americans versus Japanese? Give me something else to read. :slight_smile:


Good for when I’m driving though…

Well, it is, but they discuss the Japanese thing in detail as a specific example about how cultures are different. Another one involved the smell of cheese vs. dirty feet of all things!

This one, I think…

It was hard to track down the full text on that one (limitation of my library subscription), but it only notes that the subjects were “Twelve healthy right-handed male subjects (age range 23–35) …”, so probably an example of the perils of generalising from a very specific small sample.

It would be interesting to see experimentally where New Zealanders fit on the same scale. I find Kiwis less individualistic and more collectivist than people from the US, Australia, Canada, and the UK.

Paul Ekman (cited in Heinrich 2010 as doing good generalisable research that didn’t have a WEIRD bias) also found differences in expressed emotion between Japanese and American subjects when he was studying facial expressions in different cultures. The Japanese subjects masked facial expression much more heavily than US subjects when under scrutiny by others, but showed the same type and intensity of facial expression when under the impression they weren’t observed.

Psychology’s reason to be in a few words would be investigating why we do the things we do… certainly when you look at some of the bigger problems facing our species today - religious fanaticism and mass migrations ( eg. the refugee crisis in Europe, ) to name a couple - the resources seem to be going more in the direction of building higher fences and deadlier drones that trying to understand why and perhaps provide alternatives. Perhaps there is no money in it , as compared to endlessly and expensively encouraging the relatively wealthy to return to lick their own vomit - which is a pretty harsh judgement on the brain sifter game.

The majority of research psychologists are not clinical psychologists, I think. You might possibly be thinking of psychiatrists, a very different matter.

As a student I had a supervisor who had done work with naval personnel. I looked up one of his papers in the library and discovered that someone had vandalised it - everywhere it said “naval ratings” it had been altered to “stupid naval ratings”, so I told my supervisor. He was amused. He told us that naval ratings are of above average intelligence, above average psychological stability, but of course not typically students. He suspected the “stupid” had been added by one of his colleagues who had worked solely with students and didn’t like our supervisor’s very different findings.
I can’t discuss his research except to record his comment that “we’re very fortunate to have those naval ratings on board nuclear subs rather than undergraduates.”

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verbing nouns weirds syntaxing.


It does ‘weird the syntax’ but it also made that sentence more compact! :stuck_out_tongue: And norming isn’t even my neologism — it’s a widely used concept in test generation and evaluation.

No Tuckman’s “Forming, Norming, Storming, Performing” either, without making the same noun into a verb in a different context.

This is not just due to ethnocentric arrogance and poor research methods; it’s also the result of the extreme separation of fields of study in modern academia. Anthropologists had been pointing out this problem quite loudly for over 100 years before psychologists managed to take any real notice (in 2010!). The only reason that state of affairs could continue was that psychologists don’t read anthropology. They don’t subscribe to the same journals. There is no cross-over at conferences. Advisors don’t require literature surveys to include anything outside their own field, even when it studies the same topic (human behavior).

I’m not saying psychologists are uniquely at fault here; most academic fields are heavily segregated into separate silos, despite the recent craze for pro forma interdisciplinaryinitiatives. It’s just a particularly good example of the serious problems that arise from parochialism.


It’s not just anthropology and psychology. Within Medicine, specialities that deal with similar pathologies can have different approaches to the same problem and for the same reason.

Psychology studies are almost always about WEIRD people: Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic to this list of characteristics should be added: Racist; Imperialist; aggressive; colonialist; warlike; invasive, [i haven’t the time to come up with a clever acronym] If the individuals are from the US you could say “formerly Democratic” as recent studies and the effects of recent US supreme court cases are given any credit. Not just weird, dangerous because they consider their-own-dam-selves, normal.


I’ll rise to the bait. Is there any society of any note that hasn’t been all of these things? In fact, one could make much the same claim of almost all of the animal kingdom as well.

Historically, the only thing that has stopped societies being aggressive is being so unsuccessful that they didn’t have the means to colonize and invade.

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IIOC’s Tinder profile, right there. NopeCupid covers the Olympics as if you were overinvested in a particular athlete…sponsored by Mormon Poker.

In fairness though, isn’t Chinese psychology called the Party?

I don’t always succeed myself but when I’m writing on a general purpose blog I try to avoid technical terms that won’t be understood by most people. More people might have heard of normalisation - which isn’t the same thing. You might have made the sentence more compact but you also made it opaque to most readers.
I realise that some of my posts become more prolix than most people want to read but I do get the occasional message of support which makes the effort to be clear to a nontechnical audience worthwhile.
And yes, I have been a science teacher. But I have also had to explain things to boards of directors, which is harder.

Research into animal behaviour has definitely been held up by Christian human exceptionalism, i.e. believing humans have a “soul” and other animals don’t. There are still repeated attempts to show that some aspect of human behaviour is unique to humans - usually language. (Also racism has tended to emphasise light skin as an important defining characteristic, and only now is it being admitted that it is a very recent development, an adaptation to lack of Vitamin D at higher latitudes dating back perhaps only a few thousand years. Though this isn’t psychology.)
One great virtue of Youtube (there is one!) is that it puts up animal behaviour for us to observe and confronts us with the similarities between, say, dogs and toddlers.