The Weirdest People in the World? (Has Psychology Research Gone Wrong?)

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Have you ever had the feeling that something could be wrong — really wrong — with our understanding of human nature and the insights offered into it by psychology research?

About the Article on WEIRD People

If you’ve ever been tempted to exclaim “what a load of rubbish!” when reading an over-zealous extrapolation about human nature based upon a study with a sample size of 50 undergraduate volunteers, you’re going to love this!

As a ‘BBS Associate’ — part of an international community of authors, referees and commentators drawn upon by the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences — I recently received this abstract by eminent researcher in culture, cognition and evolution Joseph Henrich and colleagues Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan, all from the University of British Columbia:

ABSTRACT: 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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The paper has been selected as a target article for open peer commentary at the prestigious journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, one of the foremost print publications in its field. If you’d like to have a look at the full text of the paper, the pre-print is available here: Henrich Preprint: “The Weirdest People in the World?”.

The journal employs a fairly unique quality-control system whereby commentaries are accepted only from people called ‘BBS Associates’ or those nominated by BBS Associates; and to be eligible to become a BBS Associate, you must either have had work previously accepted for the journal (or refereed for them), or been nominated by someone who has. As a BBS Associate myself since publishing with them in the late 90s, I’m happy to nominate others to write commentary for the article. So if you have relevant expertise in this area, and no other BBS Associate is available to you, please drop me a note via the site’s contact page and let me know a bit about your background and what you would like to contribute via published commentary.

About the Journal

Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) is an international, interdisciplinary journal providing Open Peer Commentary on important and controversial current research in the biobehavioral and cognitive sciences. Commentators must be BBS Associates, or suggested by a BBS Associate. If you are not a BBS Associate, please follow the instructions linked below:

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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