Another Reason To Take Psych Research With Many Grains Of Salt

Illustration for article titled 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]


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Ugh, I shouldn't be so invested in this article and the responses but they are frustrating. Maybe because I've been invested in these kinds of studies for years. You know why so many studies are done with college students?


Most psychology and other social science institutions aren't awesomely well funded enough to do large scale studies with people who best represent the entire target pool. Almost all these studies note the limitations of these studies. They get the population that they can convince to actually participate. If you want better studies, encourage better funding of social science schools and you'll see better studies with a more diverse pool of subjects.

The world of social science for the most part is aware of the limitations. Culture bound syndromes? More likely to be studied in social science than outside of them.

It's the soundbite culture where people act like a correlation means causation and that every finding is universally applied—that's a mainstream media issue, not necessarily just an issue in social science. Look at the page of jezebel when they talk about altruism? Do you actually think that the researchers think they are making some broad conclusions about mankind or some correlations about a substrata of American society which may have implications for further study? If you guess the latter, you are more on target.

Psychology and other social sciences have problems with cultural chauvinism, like any other mainstream institution,but to be honest, I've had more discussions about cultural limitations inside the social science world and not outside of it. And btw, if you want more diversity, we need to think about the reality that scientific journals in general are considered more respected in the field if they are published in English—which brings up a whole host of issues when it comes to cultural representation.