I don't like horror movies, or haunted house rides, but maybe perversely, I get excited when the bottom suddenly drops out of accepted theories and popularly held beliefs about the world like a trap door in a haunted house. I remember when I first heard about "entanglement," twin atomic particles that "figure out" how to behave exactly alike at exactly the same time even when widely separated. Einstein had rejected such possibilities as "spooky action at a distance," but there they were, such possibilities, sticking their tongues out at him and shaking the foundations of our reality. I felt the news like an earthquake, only one in which my house didn't collapse---all the fun of a disaster and none of the immediate consequences. I think I would have adored it when Copernicus first put forth his heliocenetric revision of our solar system, rattling everybody's dishes.
A report in Science magazine last year http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5986/1627.full gave me almost as thrilling chills. It's author, Dan Jones, explained that some relatively recent studies were forcing experimental psychologists in the behavioral sciences to re-think their definitions of "human."
Popular books like , Nudge, Switch, Willpower and The Compass of Pleasure, (to name just a few of the recent behavioral science revelators) (1) all base their diagnoses and prescriptions for improving our lives on experiments done in research universities around the world. These studies are cleverly-designed, peer reviewed and reassuringly redundant, meaning that the same results have been produced often enough and in different enough ways to appear convincing.
There are only two big problems with behavioral science as we know it: One, most human studies were not really done on "people;" the majority were done on one very particular kind of person. Two: it turns out that the type of person studied is not like the others.
There is this thing known as the WEIRDo bias. According to research by anthropologist Joseph Henrich and psychologists Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan published last year in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) (2), Broad claims about human psychology and behavior published in the world's top journals are based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies.
The results of these experiments have been promoted on the assumption that these WEIRD "standard subjects" see, feel, think and behave in much the same way as anyone anywhere, or that the experiments are designed to make any differences irrelevant. But Henrich et.al., after reviewing a wide range of comparative behavioral databases, found that people from WEIRD societies really are weird, "particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species---frequent outliers."
And it gets worse. Most psychological researchers worldwide disproportionately use undergraduates from their psych departments as experimental subjects. Between 2003 and 2007, U.S. psychology students were the only people used in 67% of all top-tier empirical studies in this country, according to a 2008 study by Clark U's Jeffrey Arnett published in The American Psychologist. Such over-representation seems excessive considering that many undergraduates' minds haven't fully matured. Additionally, students' preferences for the field of psychology over, say, physics or comparative literature or might further bias these samples. When it comes to being psychologically representative, Science Magazine's Jones explained:
...although WEIRDos stand apart from the rest of the world...Americans stand even further away, with U.S. undergraduates further away still---"an outlier in an outlier population," as the BBS authors put it. Says Hendrich, "We will never figure out human nature by studying American undergrads."
Well, okay, you say to yourself. It's easy to see why a forty-year-old camel-driver somewhere in Egypt might have different attitudes towards cooperation, fairness, or, well, camels, than a teen in California who hopes to develop a therapy app for the Blackberry. But can't experiments correct for this difference?
Alas, the differences reported in BBS went beyond the easily predicable, writes Jones. People in cultures world-wide conceptualize differently than WEIRD subjects do. They not only give more weight to circumstances ("his camel was giving him trouble") than temperament ("he has a short fuse"), their processes of inductive reasoning are more wholistic. Other cultures place less value on individual choice; they construct and value self-esteem differently than WEIRD undergraduate psych majors. Most remarkably, they even perceive certain optical illusions differently than WEIRD subjects do. (see diagram).(3)
These are not trivial differences. If we can no longer continue to assume that studying any one group or cluster of people can yield reliable information about our species, a great many experimental studies are up for a revision, including not only some seemingly sturdy developmental and theraputic theories and a good many of evolutionary psychology's fanciful suppositions and extrapolations, but also the work of neurobiologists and cognitive neuroscientists.
Because change is difficult and convenience a powerful factor in how things get done, understanding WEIRD undergraduate sample biases will probably have less of an impact on experimental design or reporting than it should, at least in the short term. For now, greater transparency about subject recruitment and the conditional value of results would be a small step in the right direction, but it's at best a stopgap. As Arnett ironically suggested, Journals whose published research doesn't acknowlege human diversity won't want to rename their publications things like "Journal of the Personality and Social Psychology of American Undergraduate Introductory Psychology Students."
Traditionally, different groups of people react in different ways when accepted wisdom is undermined: those with a stake in the status quo tend to get defensive or dismissive, the way the Church eventually did with Copernicus. Of those who embrace unsettling findings, the shell-shocked tend to misinterpret or exaggerate the importance of new information; aesthetes use paradigm shifts as inspiration for artistic creations; and true scientists are supposed to incorporate new information into some revised version of their practice and narratives.But personally, when I learn that half the things I thought I knew about human behavior are ripe for revision, I just get giddy. Whooooooo....
Switch ---How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath, Random House 2011
Willpower -- Recovering the Greatest Human Resource, by Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney, The Penguin Press 2011
(2) [Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) 2010, 33: 61-83, Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X0999152X Published online: 15 June 2010
(3) Diagram adapted by Science Magazine, op. cit., from M. Segall, et. al. ---The Influence of Culture on Visual Perception, the Bobbs Marrill Co. 1966.