The Situationist

The Situation of Experimental Subjects

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 22, 2010

Joe Henrich, Stephen Heine,  and Ara Norenzayan recently posted their paper, “The Weirdest People in the World?” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior – hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re‐organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

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You can download the paper for free here.  To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Nicole Stephens on ‘Choice, Social Class, and Agency’,” “Deep Capture – Part VIII,” “The Situation of I.Q.,” and “Cultural Thinking.”

2 Responses to “The Situation of Experimental Subjects”

  1. Tamara Piety said

    I haven’t read the article yet, although I look forward to doing so. However, it sounds to me that while these observations might raise valid concerns about generalizing about “human nature” in its most essential form (assuming we can reduce it to single thing called “nature”; they may not have any bearing on what the earlier research suggests about what sort of regulatory interventions are appropriate in a WEIRD society if the observations are valid for such societies. Moreover, WEIRD societies are those which have been most thoroughly exposed to ubiquitous commercial propaganda which I have argued is essentially an unregulated experiment on human subjects. Could there be a connection? Seems worth exploring.

  2. […] Pychyl praises Van Hooft’s sample. A large pool of subjects—a total of 900 participants completed the study—gives the sample some statistical bite. Pychyl notes that the final data set is skewed towards more educated and employed participants, but it still has an advantage over many procrastination and time management studies, in that it is drawn from the general population. Many of the studies covered here involve college students in western countries, who arguably bear limited resemblance to humanity in general. […]

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