HGS Prematunge

We are biased. It is simply human nature to be biased about anything from politics to race and everything in between. Then how could research be an exception? Although research guards against all types of biases through various methods there’s nothing preventing the very activity of ‘research’ from being biased.

According to statistics 95 percent of psychology research published in renowned journals are produced by countries that represent only 15 percent of the world’s population, such as the US, Europe, Australia, Israel and New Zealand. Of this 70 percent have been produced by English speaking nations and 60 percent by US alone.

This WEIRD bias is a relatively newly discovered phenomenon in research, first described in the research paper ‘The weirdest people in the world?’ by Joe Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan of British Colombia University. WEIRD is an acronym for ‘Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic’ significant characteristics of not only those who produce the majority of research but also the majority of population samples used in such research. As the majority of the research is conducted in Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic countries, their participants are overwhelming of a ‘WEIRD’ background. In fact, Western, and more specifically American, undergraduates form the bulk of the database of psychology, cognitive science, and economics and allied fields collectively labeled ‘behavioral sciences’.

The problem is obvious, as Henrich, et al. points out in their paper, researchers assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these ‘standard subjects’ are as representative of the human species as any other population. Despite their narrow samples, behavioral scientists often draw inferences about the human mind and human behavior, based on these generalizing researches.

Henrich, et al. points out that leading scientific journals and university textbooks routinely publish research findings that base their psychological generalizations on mostly white, female, and young college students.

The population samples of such WEIRD research do not even reflect the majority of the population in ‘WEIRD’ countries due to age variations. Two thirds of the population samples in US based research had been drawn from university students, because they are the most easily accessible segment for researches conducted by universities. American Colleges provide researches with a steady supply of guinea pigs. And the perception of university students who are relatively inexperienced differs vastly from the rest of the working population. Consequently, it is safe to say that the results of such biased research differ vastly from reality.

In fact, psychology research samples are species-generalizing to the point of being point endemic in ecological lingo. Research are usually not just biased in terms of being Western, but also usually white, educated, rich and often young and female college students.

White, female young college students are the subjects used in most research, which means, it does not necessarily reflect a world-wide balanced view. (photo courtesy 1brooke-cagle-g1Kr4Ozfoac-unsplash)
White, female young college students are the subjects used in most research, which means, it does not necessarily reflect a world-wide balanced view. (photo courtesy 1brooke-cagle-g1Kr4Ozfoac-unsplash)

For example, among 510 samples published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP) in 2002, 85% were student samples, 71% of the participants were female, more than 80% were white, and the mean age was 22.9 years. Bethany Brookshire in ‘Social Science is WEIRD, and That’s a Problem’ points out that considering the source of the data shows most of the hyped research in a whole new light. This goes to show how blatantly prejudicial, stereotypical not to mention ethnocentric and parochial these inferences are.

In this backdrop how can such a biased population sample be expected to accurately reflect the behaviour or opinion of the rest of the world? How representative of the rest of the population are the WEIRD? In truth, the over-sampling of American undergraduates is skewing contemporary understanding of human behavior.

The WEIRD populace does not represent the majority and therefore the credibility of such research and the applicability of such findings to Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries come into question as cultures and value systems differ vastly from region to region.

Although we are all bound by a similar genetic makeup, the global common man concept is a myth. Research point out that the way we perceive the world differs according to cultural diversity. It is believed that moral decision making, visual perception, sense of equality, fairness, spatial reasoning, ethical reasoning and even intelligence quotient varies between western and eastern cultures. Brookshire points out that there is a big dose of sociology in our psychology. Behaviors and perceptions as mentioned above are shaped by the environments and contexts in which one grew up.

In order to counter such prejudice in research, researchers are increasingly seeking the help of the internet. Internet surveys may very likely eliminate the WEIRD bias. Some argue that although the number of non-WEIRD participants in internet samples may seems modest, Internet methods permit the collection of large samples, so the absolute sample sizes of non- WEIRD participants can be quite impressive.

Websites such as Mechanical Turk is on the fast track to becoming the world’s largest survey participant bank. It’s basically a platform for surveys where anyone from anywhere in the world can register to answer research questionnaires. This in a way ensures diversity. However, this could lead to a whole new type of bias where the respondents are given the option of answering questionnaires of their choice. Therefore it’s safe to assume that respondents would opt to answer questionnaires of researches that they are more familiar with. Such a population sample would not accurately reflect the general population either. Consequently, conclusions these researches lead to would also be biased and therefore inaccurate.

“We hope that researchers will come to realize just how precarious a position we’re in when we’re trying to construct universal theories from a narrow, and unusual, slice of the population,” Steven Heine had said. In fact, Journals and researchers privy to the generalizing WEIRD trend, now add qualifiers, such as ‘in college populations’ or ‘in Western society’, in an attempt to distinguish this drawback. However, Brookshire points out that the WEIRD concept is often lost in translation with many journalists and commenters easily assigning the findings to the general population.

However, these studies and their findings cannot be disregarded completely. But one should keep this drawback in mind when formulating laws, regulations and policies with far reaching repercussions, such as education, regional law and peace, without attempting to adopt the same mechanisms recommended in these researches largely WEIRD biased.

(This article is the 14th instalment in a series of articles which discusses education related issues on a fortnightly basis in counterpoint.)

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