Weird Subjects

Psychological tests are supposed to give us a pretty good picture of how the human mind works. The problem is that the human mind is a very complicated thing which is affected by any number of factors and varies a good bit from person to person. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of test subjects are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic – in other words, WEIRD.

As Henrich et al show, many phenomena we’ve assumed are universal probably aren’t: we can only really say they’re universal among Weird people, who make up 96% of subjects in behavioural science, or Americans, who make up 68%, and often only among US college students, who provide US researchers with a supply of guinea pigs. And the Weird, they say, “are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species”. In the “ultimatum game”, for example, people are given $100 and told to offer some of it to someone else; if the other person accepts, each keeps their portion, but if they reject the offer, nobody gets anything. On average, Americans offer just under half, which seems to say much about human notions of fairness, or the fear of making an insultingly low offer. But many cultures behave differently; the Machiguenga of Peru prefer to keep more cash or, if on the other side of the deal, to accept whatever is offered. Another example: speakers of the Mayan language of Tzeltal are among several more likely to describe things as east or west of each other, not on the left or right. Academics would bristle, the researchers note, if journals were renamed with titles such as Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of American Undergraduate Psychology Students. But perhaps they should be.

Weirdness Just Got Weirder [The Guardian]

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