WEIRD Psychology: US-Centrism and Unintended Consequences

A study recently conducted in Canada looked into the demographics of psychology studies. What they found was very interesting: College students in the United States are 4,000 times more likely than anyone else to be used in a psychology study. This includes a broad swath of studies, and it has some very real and interesting implications for the field of psychology.

Why are US college students so much more likely to be studied by psychologists than anyone else? Well, there’s an interesting confluence of circumstances going on there, starting with the fact that the US tends to think it’s number one, and that goes for our psych programs as well. We have a lot of colleges and universities with psychology programs and a lot of them conduct studies, which means that folks in the US in general are more likely to be studied by psychologists than people in the other regions, as in general people in the western world are more likely to be study subjects; a British citizen is more likely to be in a position to participate in a psychological study than a resident of Kenya, for example.

Additionally, college students represent a captive audience for psychology researchers. Participation in studies is kind of taken as a given in many colleges and universities and a number of college students also appreciate the compensation provided for participating in research. 67% of the college students participating in these studies are psychology students, so, really, these statistics are even narrower than one might believe at first glance.

This raises a legitimate question: Would it be better to say that the study of psychology is actually the study of college students in the United States, with a heavy slant towards people in psychology programs? It’s a question psychologists are starting to ask after surveying the results of the study, because it’s generally accepted that culture and environment play a key role in psychological development. By limiting study to certain groups, we are actually not getting a generalised picture of humanity, we are getting a snapshot of a specific slice of it.

There’s a term for this phenomenon, the tendency to select certain types of people for psychological studies. They call it WEIRD: Westernised, educated people from industrialised, rich democracies. It’s important to note that the college students involved in such studies may come from all over the world (again, thanks to US-centrism, people often believe that the best education is to be found in the United States), but they are often heavily Westernised, for a variety of reasons.

One thing I learned when I studied psychology is that the key flaw in many studies is the sampling method. It’s pretty clear that the psychology community as a whole has been using a pretty troubling sampling method, unless they’ve been meaning to only study people in the United States all these years. It’s kind of hard to get a good sample if you are limiting your studies to United States soil, which demonstrates a need to extend studies to other regions of the world to learn how people in general think and behave, not just people in the United States.

This has real consequences. The outcomes of studies conducted in the United States are applied to people all over the world and they are used in a variety of ways. We are basing standards of ‘normal’ behaviour on a very small demographic group, and that will inevitably cause some problems. Like, really big ones, when you’re trying to apply the psychology of people from one culture to the psychology of people from another.

Psychology gets used in everything from lectures for businesspeople to get them familiar with the psychology of business so they can be more effective, to identifying members of the population with mental illness. It has serious repercussions in a wide variety of fields. I’m trying to imagine applying the experiences I’ve gained from living in a small, somewhat liberal town in Northern California to the rest of the country, making generalisations about people in the United States in general from my limited viewpoint. I imagine I would come up with some pretty hilarious and also skewed things as a result of not sampling outside my small pond.

We talk about the disconnect people in the US sometimes feel when it comes to the rest of the world, how we seem to have trouble understanding why the rest of the world isn’t as delighted with us as we are with ourselves. Well, things like this could be a pretty solid reason. Perhaps the rest of the world is tired of the rest of us deciding that the experiences of people in the United States are simultaneously totally unique and special because we are so very exceptional, and yet somehow applicable to the experiences, beliefs, behaviour, and attitudes of people all over the world.

96% of the people used as subjects in studies published in major psychological journals are from the Western world. We talk a lot about how people in developing nations are exoticised and romanticised as the other and the unknown, and in the case of psychology, it’s literally true. We are applying lessons learned from people living in places like New York, Berlin, and London to the rest of the world, as though all people in all cultures are exactly the same, have the exact same goals, hopes, dreams, experiences, and cultural values.

We know this isn’t the case, so, the question is, why is the psychology community not taking more action to get more diverse study samples? Is it because they are primarily interested in the experiences of the Western world? Because they don’t think developing nations are worth studying? We know that’s the case with pharmaceutical companies in terms of how they prioritise drug development. We know that’s the case with a number of other fields of study, where we assume that lessons learned in the West can be applied in completely different cultures. The question is, when are we going to start combating these attitudes?