Another Reason To Take Psych Research With Many Grains Of Salt

Canadian psychologists have made a long-overdue point: maybe it's not so great that everything we know about psychology comes from studying American college students.

According to Anand Giridharadas of the Times, researchers at the University of British Columbia have found that 96% of subjects in a sample of top-flight journals came from Western nations. A full 68% of the subjects were American, and 67% of those were college students in psychology. This means an American college student is 4,000 times more likely than a non-American to be the subject of a psych study.

The study authors came up with an acronym for the kind of people most likely to participate in psych research: WEIRD, which stands for "Westernized, educated people from industrialized, rich democracies." In fact, these people do apparently behave WEIRDly, or at least in ways different from most other populations. They're more into choices (unlike other Westerners, Americans would rather choose from 50 ice cream than 10), and they're more fair in negotiation games, but also more willing to accept "excessive generosity." Thus, the researchers claim, American subjects are uniquely ill-suited to be the model by which the world understands psychology.

All of this makes a certain amount of sense — after all, America's bigness and loudness and hubris to make it different from other countries. And the very fact that we're the kind of people who think we can learn about everyone else's psyche just by studying our own means we might make especially bad guinea pigs. On the other hand, it may be less important to harp on the WEIRDness of Americans, and more crucial to accept how deeply cultural all psychology is. As Ethan Watters points out in his book Crazy Like Us, all psychiatric ailments are "culture-bound syndromes" — not just the ones we happen to associate with non-Western beliefs. And rather than seeing the American mind as isolated and strange, maybe we need to acknowledge that no mind is isolated from the others around it, and that what psych researchers learn is just as much about the society their subjects come from as it is about the subjects themselves.

A Weird Way Of Thinking Has Prevailed Worldwide [Times]