Being Weird

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I’m weird. Chances are that you’re weird. In fact the society you live in is probably weird too. Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic. It’s an acronym that was new to me until I read this piece about the work of Joe Henrich, a professor in Psychology and Economics at the University of British Columbia.

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Dr Henrich is the co-author of a paper that is creating something of a stir in the fields of psychology, behavioural economics and cognitive science by questioning the validity of broad claims about human psychology and behaviour using studies which are based on samples drawn entirely from WEIRD societies. His researchers found that 96% of behavioural science experiment subjects are from Western industrialized countries, yet these countries account for just 12% of the world’s population. In the field of psychology, the US accounts for 70% of all journal citations, compared with 37% in chemistry. Sometimes, a group of undergraduate students are used to stand in for the entire species.

The huge assumption behind the conclusions of many behavioural studies is that these samples are representative of all humans, and that there is little variation across human populations. In reality, says Henrich, this is not true. Psychology varies across cultures in ways that chemistry doesn’t. WEIRD subjects are often outliers –  unusual compared with the rest of the species, seeing the world in ways that contrast with the rest of the human family, and reacting differently in experiments involving measures of visual perception (illustrated by distinct  reactions to well-known optical illusions like the Muller-Lyer illusion), fairness and co-operation (disimilar results to common economic experiments like The Ultimatum Game), categorization (westerners group objects based on resemblance so for example notebooks and magazines go together, while Chinese people prefer function, so a notebook would go with a pencil), questions of individualism and conformity, reasoning styles, and concepts of self. WEIRD societies, says Henrich, are among the least representative populations for generalizing about humans, and “if you’re a Westerner, your intuitions about human psychology are probably wrong or at least there’s good reason to believe they’re wrong”. Us WEIRD people, apparently, really are the weird ones.

It’s a challenging point of view. And a reminder perhaps that we don’t always know what we think we know.

Image 1: • ian

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