Monday, July 26, 2010

A decidedly weird response

I forgot to mention the rather weird response David Spurrett and I received from the authors of the WEIRD paper I reported on the other day. For those of you who missed it, David and I basically agreed with Henrich et. al. (pdf) that Western undergraduates are often extreme outliers (i.e. weird), and that it is therefore extremely problematic that the behavioral science literature has relied so heavily on this group. Or, as we put it in our abstract: a literature focused on outliers is flawed. We went on to argue, though, that Henrich and his colleagues missed another big problem: most behavioral scientists are themselves deeply WEIRD - likely even weirder than their subjects.

As usual for Behavioral & Brain Sciences, the authors responded to all the open peer-commentaries, including ours. Here is what Henrich and co had to say about our piece (the weird bit in bold):
Finally, Meadon & Spurrett suggest that one important way of addressing these challenges is to bring more non-WEIRD researchers into the process. Empirical findings should be peer reviewed by researchers who bring different cultural models and implicit expectations to the problem. We agree with all these suggestions: Researchers can view phenomena from a novel perspective, not constrained by their own intuitions, when they study those from other cultures, and can potentially discover phenomena that they otherwise would not see. However, we disagree with an extreme version of this argument, which proposes that researchers should entirely avoid studying people from their own culture. Researcher’s intuitions about the ways people in their own cultures think can be a useful source of understanding in building theories and in honing research instruments. 
Well.... sure. But David and I never suggested anything of the kind, and it's not an idea either of us has ever taken seriously. Indeed, that researchers have some advantages when studying their own cultures was part of our point. There are excellent reasons to think diverse research communities are better, so one reason additional non-WEIRD researchers would be useful is that they often have different biases, so they may spot hidden assumptions, value judgments masquerading as facts or other problems that WEIRD researchers may miss. A Nepalese psychologist peer-reviewing a German study - even on German subjects - may see something someone as WEIRD as a German researcher overlooked, for example. But, equally importantly, a Nepalese researcher often has different knowledge like hard-to-learn cultural sensitivity, in-depth knowledge of both a local language and academic English (vital for accurate translation), or an understanding of some important nuance. So, yes, people studying their own cultures "can be a useful source of understanding in building theories and in honing research instruments". That was part of our point.

Anyway, the rest of Henrich et. al.'s response to our commentary, in which they make several excellent points:
More non-WEIRD researchers should be brought into the discussion, as well as onto collaborative research teams. Research teams themselves that better reflect broad global diversity can more effectively address the challenges delineated by Fessler, Rochat, and Bennis. [other commentators on the paper]. With regard to these points, it is instructive to consider why psychology is more dominated by American research than any other science (May 1997). One possibility is that pursuing a career in psychology is a luxury that people cannot afford until the countries and societies in which they live have achieved sufficient economic evelopment. This may be part of the explanation, although this would not explain why universities in wealthy societies like those of Japan and Western Europe typically have proportionately smaller complements of psychology researchers and majors than do North American universities. Another possibility, which we highlight here, is that the field’s emphasis on WEIRD samples, coupled with the guiding assumption of universal psychological processes, tends to unintentionally marginalize international research. If non-WEIRD researchers are interested in extending findings initially established with WEIRD samples in their home populations, such as findings associated with motivations for self-enhancement, they may well be unable to replicate the American results. The implicit assumption that self-enhancement motivations are similar everywhere would suggest that such failed replications are not due to the nature of the samples studied but instead due to some kind of unspecified deficiency in the methods of the non-WEIRD researchers. American researchers have a distinct advantage in that the field’s key theories were largely constructed on data from American participants, and we suggest that this is likely why American research constitutes 70% of the field’s citations. International research suffers from the disadvantage of trying to extend American-based theories with participants who often have different psychological tendencies, yielding results that are difficult to interpret while embracing an untested assumption of universal psychological processes. In contrast, if the field comes to recognize that psychological phenomena cannot be assumed to be universal until demonstrated as such, then research conducted by non-WEIRD researchers, guided by non-WEIRD intuitions, and studied with non-WEIRD samples, would come to be viewed as particularly important for understanding human psychology.
For more discussion, see the comments on my WEIRD post over on Google Buzz, featuring contributions by David, yours truly and the most excellent Simon Halliday.


  1. I think you should have repeated that WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, especially when you use "weird" in its regular sense in the first paragraph, making it unclear whether it's an acronym or not.

  2. Thanks... Was using "weird" for outlier, and WEIRD for the acronym. But that's probably not clear enough...

  3. You got cited by Tyler Cowen. Props. :)

  4. Yeah, I saw, thanks! (The traffic bump was nice too...)