Study Suggests Population Sample Size Just a Stupid Popularity Contest Anyway

POSTED July 12, 2010
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As is my wont from time to time I like to subtly point out the possible shortcomings of the field of psychology. I’ve recently found another opportunity, thanks to a recent post by Greg Downey over at Neuroanthropology about a paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. A trio of researchers surveyed the literature in the field of behavioral science, the umbrella of psychological studies that also inform other fields like anthropology, philosophy, economics and political science, basically the psychology-led study of what makes us tic. The problem is, the results tend to be skewed due to the very limited population that academics in the behavioral sciences draw from, namely students attending the schools where they teach. The authors point out that, based on the population samples in the studies they surveyed, an undergraduate college student in a Western university in North America, Europe, Israel or Australia is 4,000 times more likely to be a participant in a behavioral sciences study than anyone other person on the planet.

The authors created an acronym to describe this population: Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD). Haha, that’s great –  WEIRD. The thing is the authors didn’t opt for that arrangement only to be jokey (although it works), weird actually does describe the population samples upon which most of the world’s investigations into human behaviors are based. The average college student tends to be less than representative of other members of the human race in areas like ideas of what constitutes fairness, levels of self esteem and exactly where humanity sits in the natural order of things. The point of the article, essentially, is that the behavioral sciences have been drawing inferences about universal human behavior from a very narrow pool of largely white, privileged, unemployed, reckless 18- to 21-year-olds for decades now. This is like making conclusions about the guy from The Gods Must be Crazy by watching Less than Zero.

Even lazier, it turns out, than the primary researchers who post a couple flyers in the student center and sit back and wait for all undergrads who really respect their minds or think they look really hot for an older guy to show up are the people who cite those researchers. Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan — the study authors — also expose American academic psychological researchers as the sub-prime mortgages in the global economy of behavioral science. About 70 percent of the study citations in academic psychology research are of studies conducted in the United States, which means the sample population is even narrower further down the pike. Even worse, American college students tend to be the most unusual humans in categories of what are thought to be universally human, things like morals and self-importance. This means that since the American studies aren’t actually real or pertinent, then every other researcher who has ever based an argument on their findings is now academically bankrupt, or at least underwater.

It’s not the end of the world; we all suspected that our understanding of human behavior was pretty much unfounded and those of us who didn’t should probably pretend now that they did. Behavioral psychology could reasonably do nothing but change its stated goal of finding universal human qualities and instead declare it’s just going to to continue its intensive study of the most psychopathic segment of humanity. It’s just another bloodletting for psychology as a field. Just another cringe at the memory of all the headlines we retained without reading the article. Just another sigh.

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