Oct 15, 2021

Beyond WEIRD: Why We Need to Make Psychology and Social Science Research More Inclusive

For decades, researchers have relied on college students in Western, Educated, Industrial, and Democratic countries. It’s time for that to change.

By Ellen Morgan, Principal Advisor, TWCF Global Innovations for Character Development initiative & Bonnie Zahl, Principal Advisor, Big Questions in Classrooms initiative

We like to think that the psychological and behavioural sciences over the past century have helped us define and understand ourselves and the people around us in intelligible ways, allowing us to make broader generalizations about things like mental health, well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, close relationships, and character strengths (to name just a few categories) across cultures and ages. At least this is the promise of such research, which attempts to distill the complexities of human life and experience into concepts that might be relevant, applied, and studied across contexts.

The reality, however, is that our understanding of humanity writ large is apparently much more limited than we may believe. As Arthur C. Brooks noted in a recent article in The Atlantic, such generalizations, like the United Nations-backed annual ranking of the world’s happiest countries, may not be as well-founded as typically believed. Part of this has to do with psychology’s historic reliance on gathering data and from a fairly limited subset of the population, namely college students in Western, Educated, Industrial, and Democratic (WEIRD) cultures, and using these data to generate theories about how people around the world perceive, think, feel, make decisions, and relate to each other. 

As others have noted, a major problem with extrapolating conclusions from data of WEIRD populations (whether they are college students or not) is that findings may not necessarily be reflective of people who are not from WEIRD cultures. Sometimes, the very concept that is being investigated may not even be understood or defined in the same way across cultures and countries. In the case of the happiness rankings, for instance, the relative ranking between countries and cultures only works if they share the same definition of happiness, which in fact they don’t. Brooks points out that Nordic countries, which consistently rank at the top of the UN’s report, explain happiness in terms of coziness and hygge, while Americans are more likely to think about it “in terms of their skills meeting their passions, usually in the context of work.”

Even the state of feeling happy does not translate across cultures. A 2012 study by Yukiko Uchida and Yuji Ogihara of Kyoto University found that while Europeans and Americans see happiness as the “experience of a highly desirable and positive emotional state defined in terms of a high arousal state such as excitement and a sense of personal achievement,” happiness in East Asian cultures is almost the opposite, entailing “a low arousal state such as calmness and interpersonal connectedness and harmony” and can even include “experience of both positive and negative emotional state [sic].” In other words, how people define something like happiness (or sense of meaning, or any other psychological concept that might be relevant to our flourishing), and the kinds of experiences that give rise to it, can be quite different depending on their culture and environment. This makes it challenging to assume that comparisons between people from different countries are like-for-like. It is particularly problematic when things that we might think of as fundamental about human nature might in fact vary across cultures. 

Indeed, there are numerous instances of psychological difference between people from WEIRD and non-WEIRD cultures. For example, research has consistently found that people from so-called collectivistic or relational cultures—such as those often found in Asia—have more interdependent views of themselves compared to individuals from more individualistic cultures. People who come from more interdependent cultural backgrounds tend to see other people and their relationships with those other people as a part of who they are. In these cultures, social conformity—which people from more individualist cultures see as an inability to resist social pressure—may not necessarily be a flaw or a personal weakness, but might be something that is seen as valuable and desirable.

Whether a culture is more collectivistic versus individualistic also seems to affect people’s ability to reason using analogies. In a study comparing analogical reasoning in three- and four-year-olds, Chinese and American children did not differ in their performance on tasks that involved identifying simple relationships between people and objects, but Chinese children outperformed American children when the task required processing more complex relations between people and objects. These studies form part of a larger body of research that shows how culture affects things as basic as how we view ourselves and how we process information. Not only that, but we see this cultural influence as early as infancy and childhood.

This presents a problem. We know that human psychology differs across cultures, yet because of systemic biases in how research is conducted, we often do not know precisely how it differs, or the implications of these differences on how we should think about well-being and flourishing. Our understanding of what people are like across cultures is limited because of structural issues in how psychological research has been predominantly conducted. For instance, a 2010 report from the University of British Columbia found that from 2003 to 2007, fully “96 percent of psychological samples came from countries with only 12 percent of the world’s populations,” with the United States accounting for 70 percent of subjects. Eight years after this report, another study found that in a prominent psychological journal , fully 94.5 percent of studies published in 2014 were from WEIRD countries, with almost 58 percent coming from the United States alone.

There are a few reasons why this WEIRD-bias in research has existed for so long. College students are an easily accessible, convenient, and cheap pool of research subjects; it is much harder and more time consuming to try to make a research study’s sample nationally or even internationally representative. The problem is exacerbated by systemic issues in the ways such research is funded and conducted. Well-known research institutions are generally seen as more reliable managers of funding and of projects. As a result, there is a natural tendency for governments, foundations and other grant-makers to assign funding to known institutions, and it is generally seen as being “safer” to invest in research at a familiar university, typically in a WEIRD country, than to make a “riskier” grant directly to a small or little-known institution in unfamiliar parts of the world. This funding gap leads naturally to a research gap: researchers from non-WEIRD countries, who have the most direct access and knowledge of their own cultures and populations, are less likely to receive funding to do research. Less research on non-WEIRD populations is produced and published, and as a result, other scholars do not have the opportunity to become aware of or engage with cultural differences and circumstances that are worthy of study.

The over-emphasis on WEIRD subject populations is further compounded by brain drain. Because of the systemic preference for known institutions in WEIRD countries, scholars and students from non-WEIRD countries interested in psychological and social science research go to WEIRD institutions for training and work. Many do not return to their home countries, creating a paucity of local research talent and a subsequent lack of funding. In other words, the historic emphasis on WEIRD research becomes a self-reproducing system.

We believe that for research in the psychological and behavioral sciences to truly be successful and help create practical tools to promote human flourishing globally, we must go beyond this historic reliance on WEIRD research. We can’t support flourishing if we don’t know what it means to “live the good life” in different cultures or contexts.  Of course, this doesn’t mean we need to start from scratch. On one level, it simply means doing away with common assumptions and tendencies to over-generalize and ensuring instead that we are studying differences between groups and in comparative and cross-cultural contexts. It also means that we need to change grantmaking priorities and processes to allow researchers in non-WEIRD countries access to the resources they need.

We have huge deficits of understanding about what it means to flourish under adversity, to be happy in non-WEIRD contexts, and even about how people in different cultures see themselves in relation to the future or, conversely, their ancestors. Our current understanding of flourishing emphasizes the individual as a single, independent adult; we know significantly less about what it means for a group or community to flourish, how the flourishing of a group influences the flourishing of an individual, or what it means to flourish as a child or as an elderly person. These are basic questions about human nature that we have only begun to scratch the surface of. These questions won’t be answered overnight, and the deficits in non-WEIRD research won’t be solved all at once, but there are signs of progress. Templeton World Charity Foundation is committed to making progress against these challenges through two new funding initiatives which seek to advance the science of flourishing. It is only by supporting the study of meaning, happiness, and flourishing across diverse cultures and contexts that we can hope to expand the horizons of what we know about humanity writ large.  

Ellen Morgan is the Principal Advisor for the Global Innovations for Character Development initiative. Previously, she supported Grand Challenges Canada’s Global Mental Health innovation program and contributed to the 2017 Lancet Commission on Mental Health and Sustainable Development. 

Bonnie Zahl is the Principal Advisor for the Big Questions in Classrooms initiative and founder of Eightfivetwo, a consulting firm that helps philanthropic and academic organisations pursue interdisciplinary research and engagement more effectively.