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.

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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.

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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.

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