Psychology Studies Sample WEIRD Humans

[This paper is] about another exotic group: people from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD)societies. In particular, it’s about the Western, and more specifically American, undergraduates who form the bulk of the database in the experimental branches of psychology, cognitive science, and economics, as well as allied fields(labeled the “behavioral sciences”).


Who are the people studied in behavioral science research? A recent analysis of the top journals in six sub‐disciplines of Psychology from 2003‐2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and a full 96% of subjects were from Western industrialized countries,specifically North America, Europe, Australia, and Israel(Arnett 2008). The make‐up of these samples appears to largely reflect the country of residence of the authors, as 73% of first authors were at American universities, and 99% were at universities in Western countries. This means that 96% of psychological samples come from countries with only 12% of the world’s population. Put another way, a randomly selected American is 300 times more likely to be a research participant in a study in one of these journals than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.

Even within the West, however,the typical sampling method for psychological studies is far from representative. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,the premier journal in social psychology—the sub‐discipline of psychology that should (arguably) be the most attentive to questions about the subjects’ backgrounds—67% of the American samples(and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses(Arnett 2008). Furthermore,this tendency to rely on undergraduates as samples has not decreased overtime (Peterson 2001, Wintre et al. 2001). Such studies are thus sampling from a rather limited subpopulation within each country.


The empirical foundation of the behavioral sciences comes principally from experiments with American undergraduates. The patterns we have identified in the available (albeit limited) data indicate that this sub‐subpopulation is highly unusual along many important psychological and behavioral dimensions. It is not merely that researchers frequently make generalizations from a narrow subpopulation. The concern is that this particular subpopulation is highly unrepresentative of the species. The fact that WEIRD people are the outliers in so many key domains of the behavioral science srenders them—perhaps—one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about Homo sapiens.

To many anthropologically‐savvy researchers it is not surprising that Americans, and people from modern industrialized societies more generally, appear unusual vis‐à‐vis the rest of the species. For the vast majority of its evolutionary history, humans have lived in small‐scale societies without formal schools, governments, hospitals, police, complex divisions of labor, markets,militaries,formal laws, or mechanized transportation. Every household provisioned much or all of their own food,made its own clothes,tools, and shelters, and—aside from various kinds of sexual divisions of labor—almost everyone had to master the same skills and domains of knowledge. Children grew up in mixed age play‐groups,received little active instruction, and learned largely by observation and imitation. By age 10, children in some foraging societies obtain sufficient calories to feed themselves, and adolescent females take on most of the responsibilities of women. WEIRD people,from this perspective, grow up in, and adapt to, a highly unusual environment. It should not be surprising that their psychological world is unusual as well.


A culture not representative of the species.

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 The Weirdest People in the World
Periodicals>Journal Article:  Heine, Norenzayan, Henrich (5-Mar-09), The Weirdest People in the World, University of British Columbia, Retrieved on 2013-06-27
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  • Folksonomies: psychology