Ten years ago, an acronym was born. There was nothing particularly unusual about the circumstances surrounding its birth. It first appeared in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, in an article by three psychologists — Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan.
Now, acronyms abound in academic writing. Most are met with groans and then are quickly forgotten. But those of us who witnessed the birth of this five-letter marvel sensed that its career might look different, that it was destined to go far.
The article was titled ‘The weirdest people in the world?’ and it made two key points. The first was a point about over-representation. Psychologists, by their own account, were trying to understand the human mind, the mental make-up of our species as a whole. But, to do this, they were drawing on a razor thin slice of that species. They were drawing overwhelmingly on people from societies that were Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. People who were WEIRD.
Important as this first point was, it was not necessarily news. An earlier analysis had found that — as Henrich and colleagues summarize it — “96% of psychological samples come from countries with only 12% of the world’s population.” Now, to be clear, all science relies on sampling. You can’t bring all 7.8 billion humans into the lab for a study. What you do is test some, and generalize from that sample. And this works fine if your sample is representative of the population you want to understand.
That’s a critical “if” and it brings us the paper’s second key point. This group, this thin yet over-represented sliver of humanity, may not actually be so representative. In fact — according to Henrich et al. — it may be a complete outlier.
This is a provocative claim. To support it, the authors pulled together evidence from a range of psychological tasks. WEIRD people, it turns out, are much more susceptible to a well-known visual illusion. We — and as an American it’s only fair to use “we” here — we have different ideas about fairness and punishment. We conceptualize the space around us differently, usually favoring body-based terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ while much of the rest of the world opts for terms like ‘east’ and ‘west’, ‘uphill’ and ‘downhill’, and the like. We WEIRDos are more…