Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a mini-course on Blogging Science (within the Thematic Meetings course), in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Daniel Heemann.
As a psychology student I spent a significant amount of my first academic year as a lab rat participating in studies. Some were fun and exciting, some were so mind-numbing that I needed to constantly remind myself that this is a mandatory process in order to receive credits for my degree. With regards to the latter category, I could at least say to myself “Yay, I’ll do it for science!”. However, after taking part in several studies my idealistic enthusiasm had to suffer – mainly because it became hard to ignore that most of these studies are done using nothing but psychology students as participants, who can be more or less categorized as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic).
That this observation was no exception has been confirmed by data showing that 80% of all study participants fall into the WEIRD-category. However, this category represents no more than 12% of the world’s population . Since the generalizability of findings is one of the foundations of psychological science and science in general, this misrepresentation in studies has been the source of endless debates and seems to be acknowledged by most psychologists as an inevitable circumstance. The common justifying response to this criticism says that undergraduate students are seen as a convenience sample: They are cheap, available, and there are many of them. While most research textbooks tell us that, once an important effect has been found, samples from more general populations are taken to validate the finding, it is questionable how often this actually happens in practice.
The issue described can be seen as part of the so called West-versus-the-rest mentality, which is the tendency of scientists to do research that is not applicable outside of western countries. We could certainly accept this more convenient and efficient approach to data gathering if humans coming from different countries, cultures, or socio-economic standing would be homogeneous in their beliefs and behaviors. However, this is not the case. A paper published in 2010 by Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan  illustrates that there are essential differences in such domains as memory, motivation, or moral reasoning across populations. WEIRD people – as defined above – are not only a small representation of the human species, but actually constant outliers compared to other populations. To name an example, the motivation to see oneself in a positive light has long been believed to be a universal human attribute. However, meta-analyses including non-western samples have indicated that this self-serving motivation is at its extreme in western populations and tends to be not even present at all in some eastern cultures .
One could of course cynically or jokingly claim that there is nothing wrong happening here: Since a lot students are motivated to study psychology because they want to find out more about themselves, it seems perfectly reasonable to conduct studies with only their peers as sample. Nonetheless, this was a rather sobering realization for me to make as I finished my duty as a participant in the first year, but definitely taught me (and maybe also now you) to be more skeptical towards studies making inferences about “people in general” or claims about human nature. We can hope that the belief of intercultural homogeneity gets increasingly challenged and with it more scientists become aware of the fact that the convenience of undergraduate students might not be worth the limitation of only being able to make predictions about the behavior of students in their own faculty building.
[…] the convenience of undergraduate students might not be worth the limitation of only being able to make predictions about the behavior of students in their own faculty building.
Hence, to end this post with not too discouraging words, we can conclude that if you are a psychology student who chose to study psychology in order to find out more about yourself – and if you are WEIRD – the methodological status quo of data gathering is perfectly suited for you.
 Arnett, J. J. (2008). The neglected 95%: Why American psychology needs to become less American. American Psychologist, 63(7), 602-614. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.63.7.602
 Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral And Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999152X
 Mezulis, A. H., Abramson, L. Y., Hyde, J. S., & Hankin, B. L. (2004). Is There a Universal Positivity Bias in Attributions? A Meta-Analytic Review of Individual, Developmental, and Cultural Differences in the Self-Serving Attributional Bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130(5), 711-747. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.5.711
NOTE: Image by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514) (Beloit College) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons