Social Science is WEIRD, and That’s a Problem.

The state of the universe.
May 8 2013 9:15 AM

Psychology Is WEIRD

Western college students are not the best representatives of human emotion, behavior, and sexuality.

(Continued from Page 1)

And there are personal pressures as well as cultural ones, all of which could affect the outcome of the study. Are subjects’ current partners coloring their memories of earlier experiences? How comfortable are members of the group in general with expressing themselves sexually? After all, if you’re volunteering for a sex study, you may well be part of a self-selecting population. So is the link between first and subsequent sexual experience really true? It might be, but it also might not generalize to the study’s college students or to college students overall. And if it does, does that mean it’s true for the rest of us? If we really are doomed to have sex like we had it our first time … most of us are screwed. And that is just considering awkward first-time fumblings, without taking into account the many people who had truly terrible experiences. But from the media attention to this story, you would assume that we were all facing dysfunctional sex lives.

Why are WEIRD college students so popular in research? Well, to be honest, they’re cheap. Free in some cases. Many will fill out a survey or three for a chocolate bar.

It’s not a bad thing to be WEIRD. And most of these studies do have value. They can tell us a lot about how college students think and behave. And many studies probably can be generalized to the rest of the population, at least the rest of the WEIRD population. But do most WEIRD studies generalize to humanity as a whole? In the case of social punishment, probably not, but in the case of emotional expression, it looks like they do. It depends on what question you’re asking.


Psychologists have become very careful about this in the past several years, and they have begun to really examine the WEIRD population and whether it is representative. Most studies now will carefully add qualifiers, such as “in college populations” or “in Western society.” For example, the study on virginity loss concluded that, “In sum, the present study provides strong evidence of the link between virginity loss and subsequent sexual functioning. This linkage represents an important step forward in the understanding of the development of adolescent sexuality.”

But the WEIRD context is often lost in translation, with many journalists and commenters easily assigning the findings to the world population in general.

So the next time you see a study telling you that semen is an effective antidepressant, or that men are funnier than women, or whether penis size really matters, take a closer look. Is that study WEIRDly made up of college psychology students? And would that population maybe have something about it that makes their reactions drastically different from yours? If so, give the study the squinty eye of context. As we often add “… in bed” to our reading of the fortunes in fortune cookies, it’s well worth adding “… in a population of Westernized, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic college students” to many of these studies. It can help explain many of the strange conclusions.

Bethany Brookshire recently completed a postdoc in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She blogs for Scientific American at The Scicurious Brain and for Scientopia at Neurotic Physiology. You can follow her on Twitter at @scicurious.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 2:05 PM Paul Farmer Says Up to Ninety Percent of Those Infected Should Survive Ebola. Is He Right?
Business Insider
Oct. 22 2014 2:27 PM Facebook Made $595 Million in the U.K. Last Year. It Paid $0 in Taxes
The Eye
Oct. 22 2014 1:01 PM The Surprisingly Xenophobic Origins of Wonder Bread
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 2:59 PM Netizen Report: Twitter Users Under Fire in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.