Psychological research and WEIRD nations

A new University of British Columbia psychological study used a new acronym to help explain why results from behavioral studies on people in Western nations don't usually represent the rest of the world. It's because we're WEIRD ("Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic.") The research is in the scientific journals Nature and Behavioral and Brain Sciences. From the UBC:
“The foundations of human psychology and behavior have been built almost exclusively on research conducted on subjects from WEIRD societies,” says UBC Psychology and Economics Prof. Joe Henrich, who led the study with UBC co-authors Prof. Steven Heine and Prof. Ara Norenzayan. “While students from Western nations are a convenient, low-cost data pool, our findings suggest that they are also among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.”

The study, which reviews the comparative database of research from across the behavioural sciences, finds that subjects from WEIRD societies are more individualistic, analytic, concerned with fairness, existentially anxious and less conforming and attentive to context compared to those from non-WEIRD societies.

Psychological research conducted in WEIRD nations may not apply to global populations


  1. I’m glad that this study has been published. But many of us, including psychological and medical anthropologists, have known all of this for a very long time.

  2. I wish psychological research would make more use of the general public instead of first year psyc students. It has a lot to do with course requirements requiring participants and hence a steady pool of participants who don’t need to be paid and who are easy to recruit. It’s the easy way out and a lot of masters degrees and PhDs where I am from consists of entirely student samples. Luckily in my own research I have avoided using any students (my sample is drivers aged 70 and above). Because my research can actually be generalised to the population at large (at least Western countries) it has received more attention than a lot of other research at the university psyc department.

  3. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

    So said an old Doctor, who once roamed the hills.

  4. So a weird subset of the weirdest societies is studied to produce results that, when leavened with statistical analysis, produce meaningful generalisations about the species, that are true across both space and time? I’m glad to see the profession is finally starting to call bullshit on itself.

  5. I learned all of that as a first-year graduate student. I also learned that trying to do multi-national work is impossible for the majority of researchers, due to many constraints, the main one being financial, but there are also issues of cultural and linguistic translation that make international comparative work difficult.

    From the press release piece, it seems as if the authors feel this is a new finding, which is just as academically dishonest as the findings they claim to have newly discovered.

    I was hoping the World Values Survey website talked about the difficulties of comparative work, since it is the main challenge they face, but I don’t see much of that in my skimming of their website.

  6. The full research article plus a ton of open peer commentary and author response is available online as a reprint at Henrich’s website (caution .pdf link) at the University of British Columbia.

    The commentary is as entertaining as the article in that many of his peers felt compelled to create their own acronyms in support of or challenge to WEIRD. For instance this acronymical description of chimpanzees in animal experiments: Barren, Institutional, Zoo, And other Rare Rearing Environments (BIZARRE) chimpanzees. Also: WRONG – When Researchers Overlook uNderlying Genotypes, and ODD – Observation- and Description-Deprived psychological research.

    One take home lesson appears to be that you need to be aware of the selection of your sample subjects in social, psychological and cultural experiments, using caution when reasoning from a narrow sample to the larger population (or species) and do not assume that everyone (in the world, in your culture, in the same room as you) are all the same, except when they are.

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