Weird Science

Most of what we know about how the world 
thinks comes from research on a handful 
of American undergrads. 


Illustration by Seymour Chwast for FP
Illustration by Seymour Chwast for FP
Illustration by Seymour Chwast for FP

If you're reading this, there's a pretty good chance that you're one of the weirdest people on Earth. Don't be insulted, though -- most of your friends and acquaintances probably are too. Recent psychological research suggests that people from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies -- WEIRD, for short -- not only live differently from the vast majority of the world's population, but think differently too.

The unsettling realization for psychologists -- the vast majority of whom are WEIRD themselves -- is that they don't actually know much about how the rest of the world thinks. A recent study by Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia notes that in the top international journals in six fields of psychology from 2003 to 2007, 68 percent of subjects came from the United States -- and a whopping 96 percent from Western, industrialized countries. In one journal, 67 percent of American subjects and 80 percent of non-American subjects were undergraduates in psychology courses.

Does this really matter? Aren't we all the same, after all? Not really, it turns out. WEIRDos tend to be more individualistic and more competitive than people from non-industrialized Asian and African societies. In tests measuring how groups of people work together, Westerners -- and Americans in particular -- are far more likely to look out for themselves. They even perceive space differently. When viewing the classic Müller-Lyer illusion (>--< vs. <-->), Americans are far more often and more easily fooled than Africans, possibly as a consequence of living in a world of concrete square angles rather than natural shapes.

If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re one of the weirdest people on Earth. Don’t be insulted, though — most of your friends and acquaintances probably are too. Recent psychological research suggests that people from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies — WEIRD, for short — not only live differently from the vast majority of the world’s population, but think differently too.

The unsettling realization for psychologists — the vast majority of whom are WEIRD themselves — is that they don’t actually know much about how the rest of the world thinks. A recent study by Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia notes that in the top international journals in six fields of psychology from 2003 to 2007, 68 percent of subjects came from the United States — and a whopping 96 percent from Western, industrialized countries. In one journal, 67 percent of American subjects and 80 percent of non-American subjects were undergraduates in psychology courses.

Does this really matter? Aren’t we all the same, after all? Not really, it turns out. WEIRDos tend to be more individualistic and more competitive than people from non-industrialized Asian and African societies. In tests measuring how groups of people work together, Westerners — and Americans in particular — are far more likely to look out for themselves. They even perceive space differently. When viewing the classic Müller-Lyer illusion (>–< vs. <–>), Americans are far more often and more easily fooled than Africans, possibly as a consequence of living in a world of concrete square angles rather than natural shapes.

But while undergrads in Wisconsin clearly perceive the world differently from Masai warriors or Vietnamese farmers, psychologists continue to make sweeping generalizations about how the human mind works. For example, the notion that choice is unquestionably a good thing is a very American idea, says Heine, “yet psychologists have traditionally assumed that everyone wants to go to Starbucks and choose one of 10,000 different permutations of coffee.”

Of course, thanks to globalization, even poor countries are now getting exposure to the WEIRD world’s culture of individualism (and getting their own Starbucks), but Heine doesn’t see the gap narrowing. “American society is becoming more individualistic as well,” he says. So don’t worry, America: Your WEIRDness is still in a class of its own.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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