undergraduates are WEIRD

This month’s issue of Nature Neuroscience contains an editorial lambasting the excessive reliance of psychologists on undergraduate college samples, which, it turns out, are pretty unrepresentative of humanity at large. The impetus for the editorial is a mammoth in-press review of cross-cultural studies by Joseph Henrich and colleagues, which, the authors suggest, collectively indicate that “samples drawn from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies … are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.” I’ve only skimmed the article, but aside from the clever acronym, you could do a lot worse than these (rather graphic) opening paragraphs:

In the tropical forests of New Guinea the Etoro believe that for a boy to achieve manhood he must ingest the semen of his elders. This is accomplished through ritualized rites of passage that require young male initiates to fellate a senior member (Herdt, 1984; Kelley, 1980). In contrast, the nearby Kaluli maintain that  male initiation is only properly done by ritually delivering the semen through the initiate’s anus, not his mouth. The Etoro revile these Kaluli practices, finding them disgusting. To become a man in these societies, and eventually take a wife, every boy undergoes these initiations. Such boy-inseminating practices, which  are enmeshed in rich systems of meaning and imbued with local cultural values, were not uncommon among the traditional societies of Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia (Herdt, 1993), as well as in Ancient Greece and Tokugawa Japan.

Such in-depth studies of seemingly “exotic“ societies, historically the province of anthropology, are crucial for understanding human behavioral and psychological variation. However, this paper is not about these peoples. It’s about a truly unusual group: people from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. In particular, it’s about the Western, and more specifically American, undergraduates who form the bulk of the database in the experimental branches of psychology, cognitive science, and economics, as well as allied fields (hereafter collectively labeled the “behavioral sciences“). Given that scientific knowledge about human psychology is largely based on findings from this subpopulation, we ask just how representative are these typical subjects in light of the available comparative database. How justified are researchers in assuming a species-level generality for their findings? Here, we review the evidence regarding how WEIRD people compare to other

Anyway, it looks like a good paper. Based on a cursory read, the conclusions the authors draw seem pretty reasonable, if a bit strong. I think most researchers do already recognize that our dependence on undergraduates is unhealthy in many respects; it’s just that it’s difficult to break the habit, because the alternative is to spend a lot more time and money chasing down participants (and there are limits to that too; it just isn’t feasible for most researchers to conduct research with Etoro populations in New Guinea). Then again, just because it’s hard to do science the right way doesn’t really make it OK to do it the wrong way. So, to the extent that we care about our results generalizing across the entire human species (which, in many cases, we don’t), we should probably be investing more energy in weaning ourselves off undergraduates and trying to recruit more diverse samples.

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