Published On: Sun, Jan 12th, 2014
HOME / PSYCHOLOGY | By bmcsr | عدد المشاهدات 1,914

The weirdest people in the world?


Abstract: 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.

In the tropical forests of New Guinea, the Etoro believe that for a boy to achieve manhood he must ingest the semen of his elders. This is accomplished through ritua- lized rites of passage that require young male initiates to fellate a senior member (Herdt 1984/1993; Kelley 1980). In contrast, the nearby Kaluli maintain that male initiation is only properly done by ritually delivering the semen through the initiate’s anus, not his mouth. The Etoro revile these Kaluli practices, finding them disgusting. To become a man in these societies, and eventually take a wife, every boy undergoes these initiations. Such boy-inse- minating practices, which are enmeshed in rich systems of meaning and imbued with local cultural values, were not uncommon among the traditional societies of Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia (Herdt 1984/1993), as well as in Ancient Greece and Tokugawa Japan.

Such in-depth studies of seemingly “exotic” societies, historically the province of anthropology, are crucial for understanding human behavioral and psychological vari- ation. However, this target article is not about these peoples.

 It is about a truly unusual group: people from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD)1 societies. In particular, it is 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 (hereafter collectively labeled the “behavioral sciences”). Given that scientific knowledge about human psychology is largely based on findings from this subpopu- lation, we ask just how representative are these typical subjects in light of the available comparative database. How justified are researchers in assuming a species-level generality for their findings? Here, we review the evidence regarding how WEIRD people compare with other populations.

We pursued this question by constructing an empirical review of studies involving large-scale comparative exper- imentation on important psychological or behavioral variables. Although such larger-scale studies are highly informative, they are rather rare, especially when com- pared to the frequency of species-generalizing claims. When such comparative projects were absent, we relied on large assemblies of studies comparing two or three populations, and, when available, on meta-analyses…..Read more