Sunday, August 1, 2010

Now I Have Proof I'm WEIRD

I've always thought that being called weird was a badge of honour. It means not being considered normal and it also means not being considered abnormal enough to be sent away for observation. I accept my weirdness. My family is weird, most of my friends are weird, and almost everyone I've met who's very interesting could be considered weird.

I may be weird but it turns out that most people around me can be considered WEIRD as well. Yes... that's WEIRD in capital letters. If you are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic than you are considered a WEIRD person. Believe it or not WEIRD is a concept that's being used to help psychology researchers understand how relevant and universal their research is. Which is important because even though psychology is a science it's rarely considered one of the purer sciences.

Science is a way of explaining the world in terms of the world. Not in terms of unmeasurable forces or magical powers. Science is powerful not just because it comes up with theories. Science is powerful because the theories can be applied to predict the future.

Chemistry tells us what will happen when we combine compounds or try to make new materials. If the materials don't act like we expect... chemists try and understand why and work towards improving their theories of the world. Physicists create theories that tell us what will happen when certain materials are next to each other and electricity is applied. The result is the transistor and everything it brought about.

Psychology has also lead people to predict the future. Edward Bernayd was a cousin of Sigmund Freud. He applied Freud's theories to the manipulation of people using their inner desires. His work was mainly in the field of advertising. In 1928 he wrote a book about his ideas called Propaganda. I recommend giving it a read. It's short and easy to read and it gives an insight into how advertisers and politicians have been trying to influence people for longer than you think. Oh... and if you're put off by the title remember that in 1928 the word didn't have the negative implications it does now. After the Nazis and WWII the word fell out of favour. So Bernays came up with a replacement that described what he was doing without the stigma attached to the word propaganda. He coined the term Public Relations.

You may think that anything advertisers did using his book wouldn't have worked. After all we have a much more mature view of psychology now than we did then. You may think some of the ideas and concepts old fashioned and even disproved.

Understand that even as science continues to improve it was still useful. This applies to psychology as well as to other disciplines like physics. Modern physics can create the transistor but older physics brought us electricity. We take science to be useful even as we learn more and change our understanding of how the world works.

Predicting the future is one part of science's power. Another part is that science is universal. What you discover I can check. In fact science expects that results will be checked and challenged. The results are theories that apply as universally as possible.

Gravity pulls you towards the Earth. It pulls the Earth towards the Sun. It also moves the Sun around the Milky Way. Same gravity. Same theory. Same laws. Different applications.

Universality is such a fundamental concept in science that people assume that discoveries are universal. It's the default assumption if you'd like. If you discover something you assume it applies everywhere. Or if you're in psychology you assume it applies to everyone.

What if what you find doesn't apply universally. What if it applies to some groups of people more than others?

The first hint I had on the existence of WEIRDness came from an article on the possible evolutionary origin of emotions. At the end of the article Joe Henrich is quoted as saying "And beware of experiments using university students" because "Tests have shown that North American university students are some of the least typical people on the planet..."

Now I suspect that Joe Henrich was quoted because of a paper he co-authored in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. I'd also just heard of the paper because of a blog entry on Shared Symbolic Storage. The paper itself is called The weirdest people in the world? (pdf). As the Shared Symbolic Storage link suggests the journal knew the paper would be thought provoking. There are 28 commentaries in the pdf that go along with the paper itself.

Don't consider the paper or the commentaries as a joke. Sure there are almost endless examples of using WEIRD in puns and interesting ways but the paper is over 20 pages long. The commentaries are 40 pages long and the combined references and sited papers goes on for over 12 pages of 2 columns of fine print.

This is not an April fools joke or a completely tongue in cheek article. This is serious stuff. Even so there are new acronyms and memorable quotes throughout.
  • WEIRD - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic
  • "I referred to them as WMC, or Western middle class, humans" - Christophe Boesch
  • WRONG - When Researchers Overlook uNderlying Genotypes
  • BIZARRE - Barren, Institutionalized, Zoo, And other Rare Rearing Environments (Referring to comparing studies on wild, institutionalized, and home-raised chimpanzees and humans)
  • ODD - Observation- and description-deprived
  • "For studies in humans in their social world, the North American undergraduate (NAU) does not serve as the fruit fly or E. coli has served for genetics. But at the level of basic psychological processes, such as learning, motor organization, or vision, the NAU is probably a pretty good fruit fly." - Paul Rozin
  • "Chiao & Cheon point out that the vast majority of cognitive neuroscience findings are based on WERID brains." - Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan
I'll admit to not having read every page and every word. Yet. The ideas and arguments in those pages are worth considering though. 

Maybe modern humans have developed different ways of understanding and explaining the world. These are not only different than pre-industrialized people but maybe different than other industrialized or civilized humans. 

Which leads me to wonder how and when these changes took place? When in our history did our cognitive abilities and outlook change? How did our ancestors sculpt ourselves to be WEIRD or how were they sculpted by the civilization and world they had created? Can these sort of findings be used to look at social history? Or even art history? The research possibilities seem endless.

One thing is for sure. I now know I'm not only weird but WEIRD. WEIRD and proud of it.

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