Do Psychology Researchers Acknowledge the Global Psyche?

Diluting the WEIRDness in psychology research, one scale at a time

Posted Jun 18, 2020

When gifting someone money, are you likely to give an amount that is rounded off or a number that ends with the digit ‘1’? If you would do the latter, chances are that you belong to India. Most Indians believe that giving odd sums of money brings good fortune upon the giftee. This is a very minute and largely non-consequential aspect of Indian behaviour, but can make a lot of difference in studying gift-giving behaviour.

Research spanning a range of variables (such as workplace policies, laws, and therapies) gets fed back to people in ways that can have life-altering consequences. Misinterpretation of different sections of a society, as a result of their being ignored during research, can have real consequences. Imagine the health hazard that could result, for example, if people from countries near the equator are advised to get as much sunlight exposure as possible to tackle Seasonal Affective Disorder

The bigger picture highlights how WEIRD research (research focusing on participants, researchers, and contexts from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries) in psychology and other behavioural sciences may completely miss anatomizing insightful traditions. Past research has called attention to the gaping differences between cultures; this emphasized the need to consider cultural differences in social science research.

Despite the arguments against studying WEIRD samples going back a decade, these samples are still employed in social science research in overwhelming numbers. In 2017, research articles spanning three issues of Psychological Science were analyzed, and a break-up of the demographics of the samples employed in these research publications can be found in the chart below.

Data from Rad, Martingano, and Ginges (2018); Graph by Arunima Ticku
Demographics of samples employed in three decades of research published in Psychological Science
Source: Data from Rad, Martingano, and Ginges (2018); Graph by Arunima Ticku

Researchers and publishers have been edified to follow certain guidelines aimed at improving the affairs of social science research. These instructions mostly pertain to studying a specific population and specifying research findings to the population studied. This can have a discouraging effect on researchers wanting to study an international sample. To tackle the impact of culture on data and enable researchers go beyond WEIRD psychology, Muthukrishna, Bell, and Henrich et al., (2020) developed “distance scales” that reveal the psychological and cultural distance between societies from specific points of comparison (the United States and China).

Adapting the basic theory of Fixation Index (FST) from the biological sciences, the distance scales are formed such that they can reveal how far apart different nations are, in terms of a select few variables (such as voluntary work, income, age of education completion, personality, information source, and democracy in their country). It tries to answer, for example, “If personality is considered an indicator of culture, how culturally distant is India from China?”

While other scales have focused solely on inter-country differences, however, this tool can also capture intra-country differences. This feature comes in handy because different units within a country (for example, states) have different cultures that can impact residents differently. These distance scales can reflect, for example, how differences in criminality within India compare to differences in criminality within the U.S., rather than just mentioning how India and the U.S. differ in criminality. 

 Gordon Johnson/Pixabay
Human behavior is not monolithic.
Source: Gordon Johnson/Pixabay

So how can the above tools be used by a scientist conducting a study on a global level, with samples from different countries?

Fortunately, the expected covariance of variables allows one to prepare research designs beforehand. Covariance indicates the relationship between two variables such that a change in one would be associated with a change in the other (for example, the amount of coffee we drink could depend on our caffeine tolerance). When not of direct interest in research, covariates (in this context, culture) can hamper results and how they are interpreted. Therefore, taking from the above example, in a study about the effect of caffeine on attention, the findings will be severely impacted if the participants’ tolerance to it is not accounted for.

This is where the distance scales come handy. The numerical values of cultural and psychological distance established in the scales can be used to statistically negate the effect that culture might have on the actual variables of interest. For example, when studying the relationship between personality and political ideology, nationality is a vital factor that would impact not only one’s personality and how it is expressed, but also how politically inclined they are. The robust scales developed by Muthukrishna, Bell, and Henrich et al., (2020) enable researchers to collect data over varied cultural segments without having to worry about how nationality would tarnish the data. 

For a field that aims to explain human behaviour, a large proportion of people remain unexplored. Various pioneers of psychology have been unwittingly painting an incomplete picture of human behaviour by focusing research on a limited sample. It is time to step outside the bubble of convenience researchers have been operating from, and deal with actual similarities and differences in individual and collective units of human society.

This post was authored by Arunima Ticku, a psychology researcher at Monk Prayogshala, India. Her interests lie in social, cultural, political, and personality psychology.