March 11, 2013

Are You Normal or are You WEIRD?

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

What if I told you that if you thought you were normal, you might just be weird?

Some friends of mine have a ten-year-old, and I pulled a book off their shelf to read it aloud. The title asks, Are You Normal? It’s a fun book, published by National Geographic and by Mark Shulman, intended to educate kids on how their favorite foods and activities compared with other kids’ tastes, activities, and home life. If you like your peanut butter chunky, for example, it means you are only like 25% of the population. If you are an only child, you might not be normal because only one in seven don’t have a brother or sister. And so on.

As sociologists, we know that what we might think of as ”normal” is socially constructed and highly malleable from time to time. But we also know that it is context-based. What is normal for some might not be normal in one place might be very much so in another. Furthermore, the data in Are You Normal? is based upon kids the United States and Canada (its target audience) even though there are rather large differences across cultures. Peanut butter and siblings are less common in, say, China.

Social scientists now know that this hiccup in our ways of understanding social life—the limited populations we study—is weird. Or, actually, WEIRD. An article, “The Weirdest People in the World?” in Behavioral and Brain Science points out that, like the National Geographic book, the social sciences have focused on a very small slice of the human mosaic. Namely: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic people. W.E.I.R.D. The acronym is intended to point out that this demographic is not necessarily generalizable.

The idea comes from Joe Henrich’s graduate research in Peru. He conducted a variation on a game called ”the prisoner’s dilemma,“ where a researcher gives one person an amount of money and says that s/he can split it with a second person. That second person, however, has the choice of either accepting the deal or nixing it completely.

Henrich points out that, in the U.S., the sharing was largely 50-50 because folks were as fair in distributing resources as they were punitive: the second subject was more likely to nix what they saw as a raw deal. In Peru, Henrich found the first person’s offerings as much less equitable and the second person was less likely to squash any offer of money. The second person, in evaluating the offer, was more likely to feel both parties should get at least something. It turns out North Americans are different in this regard to many other groups in the world. We are, in this way, WEIRD. (A more detailed discussion is available here.)

Teaming up with Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan, Joseph Henrich developed this into a larger quandary about the social sciences. Here is a key quote from the original article:

The fact that WEIRD people are the outliers in so many key domains of the behavioral sciences may render them one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about Homo sapiens…. WEIRD people, from this perspective, grow up in, and adapt to, a rather atypical environment vis-à-vis that of most of human history. It should not be surprising that their psychological world is unusual as well (2010: 79-80).

 

When the authors examined the top psychology journals, they found that 96% of the research subjects were from Western, industrialized nations.  I could not find similar data on sociology (although my guess is that it might be less). Maybe you’ve experienced this conundrum as well: I remember when I took my Introduction to Psychology class we had to submit ourselves to at least three research experiments, and I wondered how generalizable a study could be—one of them was about attitudes on sex—based upon 18-20 year olds American’s perceptions of sexuality. Yikes!

The issue of WEIRDness reminds me of another experience from my freshman year, reading Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” Within, the author studies a strange economically driven culture, wherein the “fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease.” I don’t want to ruin the trick of it, but suffice to say, it says more about what is normal for ”us” than it does about what is normal for "them," and you should take a few minutes to read the short piece. I am curious to know how you might think this older study—from 1956—can illuminate our understandings of the WEIRD ”us” and the normal “them.”

So, what can be done? Well, the authors recommend, among other things, that researchers should study diverse and difficult-to-reach research subjects, and conduct more cross-cultural research. They specifically encourage scientists to examine how differences in culture shape different cognitive outcomes, motivations, and choices. (Here’s a short piece from Nature offering a brief introduction from the authors, and here’s a great critique of their thesis.)

These suggestions raise interesting questions about research methods and assessment. If WEIRDians design research how might that shape the outcomes? Are there different approaches that could mitigate the WEIRDian origins of social science research? How might WEIRDians use and promote research conducted by non-WEIRDian groups? How, do you think a sociologist, perhaps Pierre Bourdieu, would understand this cultural exchange?

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