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Nov 17, 2023

Perspectives Beyond WEIRD & the Origins of Behavioral Economics - In the Field with Michael Muthukrishna (video)

Human behavior and flourishing is complex, and is shaped by various cultures, many outside of Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic countries.

By Templeton Staff

For a more accurate and holistic understanding of human behavior and human flourishing, research samples and questions must include cultures that exist beyond Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies.

"What will humanity achieve in the 21st century and beyond? That depends on what we do and what we choose today," says author, multidisciplinary researcher, and Associate Professor of Economic Psychology, Dr. Michael Muthukrishna.

Michael Muthukrishna's book A Theory of Everyone: The New Science of Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going, draws on research from across the sciences, humanities, and the emerging field of cultural evolution. In tandem with the book, a supplemental video series titled "In the field with Michael Muthukrishna," was produced. Made possible with funding from Templeton World Charity Foundation and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), the series features clips of the author discussing book-related topics at various global locations. This post highlights the fifth installment. Follow the series here.

In the above video, Michael Muthukrishna sheds light on the origins of behavioral economics and the limitations of studying only WEIRD populations. He takes us to the University of British Columbia (UBC) basement food court, a location where the seeds for two important and transformative ideas about how to approach behavioral research were first sown. 

It is here, Muthukrishna notes, that scholars Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were rumored to have first begun discussing human rationality, comparing cognitive decision-making models in situations involving risk and uncertainty to economic models based on rational behavior. These advancements prompted economists to reassess the potential application of psychology in shaping economic models and theories, leading to the development of the field of Behavioral Economics.

It's also in this university cafeteria where three UBC professors, Joe Henrich, Ara Norenzayan, and Steve Heine, began laying out the foundations for what became known as the WEIRD People paper. This landmark paper examines the limitations of using samples primarily drawn from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies in behavioral sciences and psychology.

"For decades, psychologists thought that by studying their students, they were learning about human behavior," says Muthukrishna. "But we were instead learning more than we really ought to or needed to know about first-year psychology undergrads in the universities of WEIRD countries." These students are not representative of the rest of the population, nor of the 88% of the global population that doesn't include WEIRD countries, he points out. The paper argues that this limited sampling has led to a skewed understanding of human behavior, cognition, and perception. It challenges the notion that findings from WEIRD populations can be applied broadly to humanity as a whole. Its influence is having an impact within research communities; to date, the paper has been cited more than 13,000 times since its publication in 2010.

Play the above video and/or read the book to learn more about how biases and conformity vary across cultures and how that inspired a theory of everyone.

Watch more installments from the video series

Introduction:  A Theory of Everyone

Episodes 1 & 2: Airplanes, Shipping Containers & the Collective Brain

Episode 3: Estonia & Rethinking Education for a Smarter Future

Episode 4: Contrasting Cultural Strategies for Success

Episode 5: Perspectives Beyond WEIRD & the Origins of Behavioral Economics

Michael Muthukrishna is Associate Professor of Economic Psychology in the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Science and Affiliate in Developmental Economics and Data Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).