Beware the WEIRD study participant

‘Weird’, in this case, means study participants from Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries. More on that below – but first let me set the stage.

Our Psychology department at UC Berkeley recently articulated a set of learning goals for our graduate students. It’s a work in progress, and several students and faculty have written to me with suggestions.

One of the learning goals is for students to…

Develop an awareness of the importance of science to humanity while recognizing its limits (i.e., some scientific knowledge is culture specific and may not be applicable to the human condition universally). 

In response, a grad student wrote me a thoughtful e-mail:

“I have always seen science as just the opposite. Anyone in the world (given some education) can appreciate a beautiful mathematical proof, the size of the cosmos, the way evolution works without foresight, and the complexity of our organs, in the same way, regardless of race, creed, or religion. To me, these scientific findings bring about the same awe and joy that a Mozart piece does, but the difference is that its beauty doesn’t depend on local beliefs or tastes. If there is anything that can bring cultures together, I think it’s an appreciate for science.”

This is a lovely perspective, written by someone who clearly loves science as much as I do, but I think it’s important to distinguish between mathematical proofs and psychological research.

This discussion reminds me of a wonderfully provocative piece that I strongly recommend to all those studying human behavior: The weirdest people in the world?  Interested readers might also enjoy this Slate article.

It’s worth pondering just how WEIRD our participants are, and whether our conclusions about human cognition and behavior are as broadly applicable as we believe them to be.

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About Silvia Bunge

I'm a tenured faculty member, and the head graduate advisor in my department.
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