Imagine a world populated by college undergraduates. A world filled with binge drinkers and sleep-deprived procrastinators tweeting their sexual exploits to virtual friends across the globe. In most psychology studies, these are exactly the people from whom psychology researchers extrapolate fundamental truths about human nature.
Although North American college undergraduates make up only about 0.2 percent of the world’s population, they account for a massively disproportionate number of psychology research subjects. In 2008, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett reported that in major social and personality journals, 67 to 80 percent of samples are comprised of college undergraduates. In fact, a college student in this country is 4,000 times as likely to be a psychology research subject than almost anyone else in the world.
University of British Columbia psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan note that psychology studies are by and large conducted on a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) bunch. These WEIRD studies create an odd problem: psychologists often tout their results as generalizable truths about human brains, beliefs, and behaviors. But if the samples aren’t representative of the rest of the world, then just how representative are the results?
Henrich and his colleagues suggest, for example, that American study volunteers are more fiercely individualistic than others. They highlight one example of this difference reflected in work on moral reasoning. WEIRD studies lead us to believe that most people progress in their moral development to a stage of internalized standards based on a sense of personal justice, autonomy, and individual rights. However, studies outside of Western samples indicate the existence of a wider range of ideas about morality. The ethics of other societies often focus, much more than Western students do, on the obligations of social roles and community, as well as the centrality of divinity and religious values. Where Western undergraduates feel freer to smoke, drink, and show up for class in sweatpants, non-Westerners might, for example, view these behaviors as contrary to their religious edicts and internal beliefs about achieving spiritual growth through material abstinence.
American undergraduates might not even be representative of Americans as a whole. College students tend to be more self-focused, atheistic, culturally tolerant, and politically liberal than the rest of the country’s population. Psychology students who make up study volunteer pools are predominately white, single, young, and female.
Given that college undergraduates are a readily accessible and captive data source, how are university-based psychology researchers supposed to push beyond the confines of WEIRD science? Enter the Internet. University of Texas personality researcher Samuel Gosling and colleagues propose that Internet-based studies have the potential to reach a much wider participant sample. Internet studies can now be designed for a range of research tasks, including survey collection, experimental designs, and even reaction-time monitoring. Some researchers are now turning to crowd-sourcing Web services that assimilate large communities of people who have signed up to take surveys and polls in return for modest payments. While such methods are still unlikely to reach smaller nonindustrialized societies, at least Internet research can expand the diversity of gender, education, age, ethnicity, and culture informing behavioral science.
Undergraduates may find it weird to think about life outside of college, but the rest of the world is starting to realize that universities are pretty WEIRD places to study.
Weird Science: American Psychologist, 63, no. 7 (October 2008): 602-14; Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33, no. 2-3 (June 2010): 61-83; http://www.economist.com/node/21555876.
Jared DeFife, PhD, is an Atlanta psychologist specializing in caring counseling to help passionate professionals overcome self-doubt, shame, and insecurity.