WEIRD Bias in Western Social Science Research?

There is a provocative article called “The weirdest people in the world?” by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayanon on the western biases in much anthropological, psychological and other social science literature. WEIRED stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies bias. This critical article has serious implications for much of the research on psychological attitudes, such as prejudice and stereotyping, as well as for other social science research that is automatically generalized extended to non-European groups in the West and to non-western cultures/countries. Indeed, a key point of this review of research is that the social science research samples are usually not just biased in terms of being only western, but also usually white, “educated,” rich, and, one might add, often young and college students.

The responses to the original article are also very interesting too. One commentator, for example,

notes that in 510 samples published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP) in 2002, 85% of them were student samples, 71% of the participants were female, more than 80% were white, and the mean age was 22.9 years (Gosling et al. 2004).

Many studies – and thus textbooks — base their psychological generalizations on these mostly white, female, and young college students.

One commentator explains some problems with broad social science generalizations from such WEIRD samples:

Weinberg et al. (2001) and Nichols et al. (2003) showed that American students of European ancestry and American students of East Asian ancestry have different intuitions about a variety of thought experiments that have played a central role in contemporary philosophy. They also report differences in intuitions between high- and low-socioeconomic status (SES) participants, where years of education was the major determinant in classifying a participant as high or low SES. . . . The classic work of Brandt (1954) [also] reports some dramatic differences between the moral judgments of Hopi people and white Americans that apparently cannot be explained by differences in factual beliefs.

Interestingly, another commentator points out one of the advantages of the new use of Internet research methods, including Internet surveys. Several studies using Internet samples reveal they

are not as dominated by WEIRD participants as are samples currently published in behavioral science journals. Moreover, even though the percentages of non-WEIRD participants in the Internet samples may seem modest, Internet methods permit the collection of large samples, so the absolute sample sizes of non-Weird participants can be quite impressive. For example, although the sample was predominantly North American … the sample represented a breadth of geographic regions from around the world: 111 countries, from Albania (N ¼ 215) to Venezuela (N ¼ 1,920), were represented ….

So, it appears that too much western social science is indeed WEIRD and thus ethnocentric and parochial in its often too global generalizations. Or is it?


  1. Seattle in Texas

    This post reminded me of a coversation we couldn’t help but over hear when we were dining out a few months ago in a small town in the more Eastern part of Texas. It’s relevant here I think, because to me it was a reflection of the younger privileged white generation of today who are those attending the college institutions…but yet too, a product of their past, history, and socialization. While this occurred in Texas in a public setting, I suspect similar conversations and mentalities exist and are displayed among younger white folks in the more private settings in areas where racism is more covert. Well, according to Picca and Feagin’s “Two-Faced Racism” it does. So I guess this supports the findings in that research.

    Okay, so we are on our way home my other half and I decided to grab a bite to eat and found a seemingly neat little spot to dine. Everything seemed fine when we entered and the host seated us in a cozy high seated booth. As we walked by the booth next to the one we were seated in I said, “Liz Claiborne.” We sat down and my other half said, “who, where?” I gestured perfume, pointed to the booth we had just walked passed with 3 very privileged younger white females sitting there conversing and said, “KKK.” Within a few moments they were making fun of the corn rows of one of their alleged black female friends, complaining of a younger black man who “always” hits on them at the parties, something about driving their Maserati in a gated community with their thumpin stereo, donating money to the “negro back of the bus fund” and so on.

    As we were sitting there my blood pressure rose a bit and my other half was reminding me this is a learning experience. Back in my own area, without hesitation I would have said something. But then again, chances are I wouldn’t have even had to because somebody else would have beat me to it. But then yet again, nobody would have had to of said anything because people don’t talk like that even in public settings where everybody happens to be all white.

    So I was sitting there just observing…suddenly feeling very, very out of place while simultaneously realizing why it was I felt I could not simply go up and confront them–even in the most polite manner. I looked around and all of the patrons were older white folks. The 3 younger women next to us were clearly in their element–they were speaking loud enough so the tables around them could hear, perhaps not deliberately. But were not trying to hide their conversation or keep it on the down low. It was as if it were all normal. The other folks didn’t mind and didn’t even seemed phased.

    With that, this post reminded me of that experience and how disconnected the social worlds are by race and class. But it reminded me of the majority of the student population colleges and universities cater to…. With that, why the biases in data collected from college students can be so far off base from segements of the larger population and not generalizable–regardless of how sound the research design and methodology might be when collecting the data from the college/university sample populations.

    • Seattle in Texas

      I don’t mean to leave back to back comments but I realized I should have added the contrasting point on the way racism operates in the PNW where I’m from as I may have left the wrong impression that I was implying it’s antiracist up there in that I can say with confidence I would not hear a conversation like that in a public setting…to put it the way some folks of color described it who were from the south: They explained what they didn’t like about the PNW is that you cannot tell where anybody stands. In this respect they felt much more vulnerable and so forth whereas in the south you generally can tell who people are, where they stand, where you can and cannot go, etc. There’s a lot of racism it’s just largely in a different form (liberal–at least in WA and OR), and some in the same form as down here–just back stage….


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