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.

A group of freshmen economy students stand together chatting after they attended an information lecture 16 October 2003 in an auditorium of the technical university of Berlin at the beginning of the winter semester.
Should all of our psych studies be done with these kids?

Photo by JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT/AFP/Getty Images

How did you lose your virginity? Maybe it was in a romantic garden under a full moon with the scent of roses all around, in the arms of your one true love? Maybe it was at the drunken party after prom night, with your underwear around your ankles, hoping no one could see you to take pictures? Maybe it was on your wedding night, maybe it was long before. Maybe it was even long after. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed it, because a recent study has shown that your sexual well-being today has a lot to do with how much you enjoyed it then. But there’s a major problem (one of several, really) with this study: This study is WEIRD.

Yes, it’s certainly odd that the researchers were checking whether how you lose your virginity influences your future sex life, but this is WEIRD in a methodological context. WEIRD is the phenomenon that plagues a lot of psychology and other social science studies: Their participants are overwhelming Western, educated, and from industrialized, rich, and democratic countries. They’re WEIRD. And not only are they WEIRD, they are overwhelmingly college students in the United States participating in studies for class credit. Thinking about the source of the data for a lot of hyped, overinterpreted psychology research puts the results into a whole new light.

WEIRD subjects (perhaps you were one?) are still human, of course, so you might think that what’s generalizable to them must be generalizable to the rest of humanity. But in fact, that’s not the case. WEIRD subjects, from countries that represent only about 12 percent of the world’s population, differ from other populations in moral decision making, reasoning style, fairness, even things like visual perception. This is because a lot of these behaviors and perceptions are based on the environments and contexts in which we grew up. There’s a big dose of sociology in our psychology. For example, WEIRD people are better at optical illusions involving line length, possibly because our environments contain a lot of straight lines in things like buildings.

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Something that doesn’t make it into the WEIRD acronym is the participants’ age. Sixty-seven percent of American psychology studies use college students, for example. This means that many or even most of the subjects are teenagers. And this has big consequences for behavior. Throughout life, the brain is changing connections: building some, losing others. While most of the major neural developments have taken place during adolescence, they are by no means complete when you hit the magic age of 18. Adolescents and college students differ in risk evaluation compared to adults, for example, and are more sensitive to reward.Such changes could drastically impact the outcomes of a psychology study.

When recruiting for many of these WEIRD studies, scientists often make the sample as homogeneous as possible, in an effort to detect small differences. Take the virginity study I mentioned above. The researchers eliminated from the sample anyone whose first exposure to sex involved “physical force” (that is, anyone who had been raped). This eliminated a small number (12 out of 331 participants). And they eliminated anyone who did not have heterosexual intercourse. The sample is so homogeneous that it applies only to heterosexual college students—who on average, according to information they supplied to the researchers, had lost their virginity only two years before.

Human studies have other limitations, of course. Often you can get people to participate for only a short period of time. In the case of the virginity study, subjects kept an “intimate relations” diary for two weeks. Out of about 300 participants, the researchers got records of a total of 639 intimate encounters, about two per person. From these two intimate encounters per person, in college students who had lost their virginity on average two years before, the authors concluded that sexual satisfaction in the present was strongly affected by how you lost your virginity and that the effects of how you lost your virginity could persist for years to come.

The majority of these “intimate relations” were not actually sexual intercourse; they were experiences where the “goal was sexual arousal.” The authors don’t report what these experiences included, but it could have been everything from first base to a home run. And, as with many human studies, the encounters were all measured by participant report. You can’t help it, of course—you can hardly keep people in the lab and having sex with each other for weeks, but self-report studies are always open to things like exaggeration or covering up, especially when it comes to studies about sex, where a lot of cultural pressure comes into play.

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.

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