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Are you WEIRD?

We are nearly at the end of 2022, and if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking about what you’re going to read next.

I’m already working on my list. Many of the books I’m going to start reading in 2023 are on psychology, as the way we communicate, disagree, resolve conflicts and create trust, psychological safety and collaboration are mostly studied by psychologists.

I regularly read articles and books about these topics, but in 2023 I’m going to be MORE CAUTIOUS.

Many books and articles that I read cite psychological studies. I take research seriously, but research and science face certain inherently human, or should I say ethnocentric, problems.

One problem in psychology right now is what is called WEIRD.

WEIRD is a term coined by Joseph Henrich to describe people raised in a society that is Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. And if that is you, you’re psychologically peculiar. Unlike much of the world today, we WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-orientated, nonconformist and analytical.

We aim to be “ourselves,” and we see ourselves as unique beings.

And why is this a problem, Natalia?

Because most of the research in behavioural science is conducted by WEIRD people using WEIRD participants.

Some researchers claim that at least sixty-seven percent of American psychology studies use college students. Why? Because they’re available, and they’re cheap.

If you’re going to trust Frances E. Jensen and Amy Ellis Nut’s research on teenagers’ brains, you’ll need to know that teenagers get addicted to substances faster than adults, their perception of risk differs from that of adults, and they’re more sensitive to reward.

More importantly, their prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for reasoning, planning, judgment, and impulse control, will not be fully developed until they reach their mid-twenties.

So yes, these are the guys who are the subjects of most psychological research these days.

Many studies nowadays carefully take the composition and diversity of their participants into account, but this is something relatively new and not yet fully and consistently addressed.

The anthropologist Michael Gurven argues that one of the problems in psychological research is that it makes universal generalisations and creates categories based on samples of people who are the same (eg college students).

Satoshi Kanazawa goes even further, rightly saying that the whole point of behavioural science, and in particular evolutionary psychology, is to learn about universal human nature. “Evolutionary psychology is not the study of American college sophomores; it’s the study of all humans everywhere who ever lived,” she says.

So before assigning universal value to the research we read, we might need to do some due diligence and learn whether it is affected by the WEIRD problem.

My wish-list for 2023 includes studies, research and people who are committed to highlighting diversity and difference, the richness of who we all are, and the complexity of our human experiences and beliefs.

And this includes how we use research.

Instead of saying,

80% of managers report that communication skills are the most important skill that you need as a manager”

we can say,

“This study on the most valued skills by managers is based on a survey of 8,000 managers. This study is relevant however we don’t know the composition of the sample, their gender, career path, geographical distribution or whether they include members of minorities. As a consequence, the result of this study cannot be extrapolated to other industries, sectors or managers in general.”

The answers to how to disagree better, resolve conflicts and navigate the hard talking in 2023 will need to be shaped by different voices and experiences. But we can’t do that if we keep on giving universal value to the particular experiences of certain groups of people.


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