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 analytic in orientation, more likely to reason according to rules. And we appear to be individualistic — about as individualistic as people get, in fact.
So, in short, WEIRD people are both egregiously over-represented and profoundly unrepresentative. We just may be — as the title suggests — the weirdest people on earth.
Many found this argument compelling. Like all articles in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, this one was published alongside a couple dozen commentaries. Some riffed on the argument, developing different aspects of it. One emphasized that the problem was not just one of WEIRD subjects but of WEIRD researchers, arguing that we need to diversify both the investigated and the investigators. Another pointed out that WEIRDness was spreading fast, that the West was a “harbinger of the future of the world.” Others couldn’t help but riff on the acronym itself, offering their own variants: ODD, WRONG, and — my favorite — BIZARRE. (None of these imitators caught on.)
This positive reception was a small taste of success to come for the WEIRD acronym. Unusually for a scholarly term, it quickly slipped the cloisters of the academy. WEIRD-ness is now mentioned in The Atlantic and on NPR. Increasingly, the term doesn’t need to be spelled out. Within the academy, the influence has been obvious as well. According to Google Scholar, the 2010 paper has now been cited more than 7000 times. In the past ten years, its arguments have been corroborated and extended, over and over. It’s sparked new discussions and new waves of self-scrutiny.
One line of corroborating evidence comes from the study of child development. WEIRD-ness begins early, it turns out. This is one of the main themes of a book by David F. Lancy, titled The Anthropology of Childhood. Parents in WEIRD societies tend to closely monitor how their children play; the talk to them directly and teach them explicitly; they attend to their every utterance and bend to their every preference. In the WEIRD world, Lancy notes, children are elevated to the status of “god-like cherubs.” These tiny angels are the pinnacle of our society’s imaginary pyramid — the center of attention, the celestial body around which the rest of family life revolves. Not so elsewhere. Children are widely seen as beneath adult concern — as marginal, even expendable.
Another line of corroborating evidence comes cross-cultural studies of the senses. For centuries, Western scholars considered the human sense of smell to be feeble, degenerate, rudimentary — not nearly as well developed as the sense of sight or hearing or even touch. But it turns out this depends in part on culture. Studies with non-WEIRD participants such as the Tsimane of Bolivia have found that they are better able to detect smell compounds than Europeans are. Western scholars have also long thought it was basically impossible to describe odors, that they are fundamentally “ineffable.” But we now know culture matters here, too. Hunter-gatherers in Southeast Asia have been found to use an elaborated vocabulary for labeling odors and to apply it in highly consistent ways, much like how WEIRD people consistently apply color words.
Even WEIRD bodies are unusual. A recent paper in the subfield of “evolutionary medicine” reviews a number of so-called “mismatch diseases.” These are conditions that arise out of a mismatch between how we WEIRD people use our bodies today and how our bodies were used for much of human history. We have fewer children and encounter fewer pathogens; we move less; we eat more of some things (like fat and sugar) and much less of others (like fiber). This overall departure in lifestyle seems to contribute to a host of issues, from Alzheimer’s and insomnia, to metabolic syndromes and bowel issues. The effects of WEIRD-ness even reach down to our very foundations — that’s right, our feet. We are more prone to hammer toes and bunions; a lifetime of wearing shoes makes our feet flatter and stiffer.
From our noses down to our toes, there are a variety of ways that WEIRD people are weird. And many researchers are now busy investigating those ways. But this is just part of the influence of the WEIRD acronym. It has also kicked off waves of concern about sampling bias across the human sciences. Without name-checking the WEIRD acronym, a 2014 opinion piece in Nature Reviews Neuroscience argued that cognitive neuroscience has unjustly — and unwisely — excluded left-handers. Another review of the same subfield has decried the lack of diversity even within US samples, noting that “the vast majority of what is known about the neural underpinnings of human cognition comes from studies limited to racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically homogeneous samples.” Meanwhile, a recent article laments a deep vein of “anglocentrism” in linguistics. And an article in the journal Cell bemoans the “missing diversity” in the study of human genetics. It reports that, as of 2018, people of European ancestry have accounted for 78% of the subjects in genome-wide association studies.
The WEIRD acronym has even resonated with those who study animals. A team of primatologists recently noted that much of what we think we know about primates stems from studies with captive animals — and, in particular, comparisons between captive apes and Europeans. A commentary published in Nature just weeks ago argues that unrepresentative sampling might be causing distortions — in fruit flies, canaries, monkeys, and beyond. The authors points out that animals with certain dispositions might be more likely to get tagged in the wild or to quote “volunteer” for studies in the lab. They offer a framework to help researchers assess possible sampling issues. The framework goes by a handy acronym: STRANGE.
As the influence of the acronym grows, criticisms of it have also started to emerge. Some worry that it perpetuates problematic ideas about Western exceptionalism. A pair of anthropologists has suggested that the unnamed core of WEIRD-ness is actually whiteness — and yet, race is rarely mentioned in these discussions. Others worry that the acronym lumps a rich tapestry of societies and communities into a bland, residual category: the non-WEIRD. It’s as if “all non-western groups are interchangeable, and all equally different from the homogenous “west.’” Many also point out that the implicit call for more work across cultures raises other issues. Investigations of far-flung and often vulnerable populations need to proceed a sensitive way. This means no helicoptering in, running studies, and helicoptering out. It means no treating humans like “endangered butterflies, to be photographed before going extinct.”
These issues are all important and, fortunately, are now being hashed out. But for those who are sympathetic to the WEIRD paper and its arguments, there may be an even bigger issue: Has the paper actually changed anything? Researchers across the behavioral sciences can now put a name to an important issue, certainly. But does that mean issue is actually being addressed? The evidence so far is mixed. One analysis showed that, in the field of developmental psychology, there was no real uptick of work on non-WEIRD groups between 2007 and 2015. Another looked at the representation of non-English speaking subjects in a premier psychology journal — Psychological Science — between 2014 and 2017. Sadly, the percentage did not increase — if anything, it had slightly fallen. But calls for reform are getting louder. Just this year, the incoming editor of the same journal, Patricia Bauer, announced an explicit effort to address the so-called WEIRD problem calling it a “threat to our science.”
All told it’s been quite a busy first ten years for our five-lettered wunderkind. So what next? The first decade of its life has been devoted to corroborating its central argument, extending it far and wide, teasing out its implications, and parsing the different dimensions of the WEIRD problem. Maybe the second decade will be devoted to doing something about that problem.
– Kensy Cooperrider