Psychological science is fraught with problems. One of
these problems that has recently attracted widespread attention is the
proliferation of false positives, which is rooted in a combination of QRPs (questionable
research practices), including “p-hacking” (choosing analytical options on the
basis of whether they render significant results) and “HARKing” (hypothesizing
after the results are known), and very low statistical power (i.e., too few
participants). Overall, psychology has responded vigorously to this problem,
although much remains to be done. Numerous reforms have been put in place to
encourage open science practices and quality in research.

Another problem that has become widely recognized
recently is that psychological research often makes inferences about human
beings in general based on studies of a thin slice of humanity. As Henrich,
Heine, & Norenzayan (2010) noted in a landmark paper, participants in
psychological research are usually drawn from populations that are WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic), which
are far from representative of mankind—in fact, they turn out to frequently be
rather eccentric, even when it comes to basic cognitive, evolutionary, and social phenomena such as cooperation, reasoning styles, and
visual perception (see also this interesting preprint by Schultz, Bahrami-Rad, Beauchamp,
& Henrich that very thoroughly discusses the historical origins of WEIRD
psychology).

The paper by Henrich and colleagues has
racked up almost 5000 Google Scholar citations. Yet a recent paper by Rad,
Martingano, and Ginges (2018) suggests that the impact of the Henrich et al.
paper on actual research practices in psychology has been minimal, at least as
indexed by research published in the high-prestige journal Psychological Science. Rad et al. find that researchers persist in
relying on WEIRD samples and show little awareness of the WEIRD problem: “Perhaps the most disturbing
aspect of our analysis was the lack of information given about the WEIRDness of
samples, and the lack of consideration given to issues of cultural diversity in
bounding the conclusions” (p. 11402).

Explaining
the persistence of the WEIRD problem

How can it be that psychology has responded so
vigorously to the problem with false positives, yet so inadequately to the
WEIRD problem? Surely both problems are equally serious, are they not? I can
think of at least three possible explanations.

1. First and foremost, the WEIRD problem is a
manifestation of a much broader problem. It is a manifestation of the lasting
influence of the marriage between logical positivism and behaviorism that
shaped psychology for almost half a century. Psychological research was
supposed to yield universal facts, just like physics, by employing “neutral”,
culture-free materials and methods, a quantitative methodology, and hard-core
empiricism. Given the vast historical impact of this ideal, it is no mystery
that psychology remains both WEIRD and theoretically unsophisticated. This is
simply the implicit paradigm under which psychology has operated for more than a
century. While the problem with false positives is a problem signaling a crisis
within this paradigm, the WEIRD
problem is a meta-problem with the paradigm itself.

2. Second, it is possible that researchers do not realize
the severity of the WEIRD problem because they are immersed in a homogeneous
community of like-minded individuals with similar concerns, and their exposure
to other intellectual cultures is limited. Here it is important to note that
the WEIRD problem is not limited to participant selection. It is a problem of
testing WEIRD theories on WEIRD samples with WEIRD methods. I personally often
find psychological theories and concepts US-centric (e.g., the reification of
“liberals” and “conservatives” in political psychology or the pre-occupation
with the self and neglect of other aspects of the person’s worldview in
personality psychology)—which is not surprising given that most of the leading
researchers in psychology are from the United States—and I still live in the broader
Western cultural sphere.

3. A third possible explanation for the persistence of
the WEIRD problem is that there are many practical difficulties involved in conducting
research in non-WEIRD contexts. A lot of things could go wrong. You need high-quality
translations of research materials. You also need to obtain a reasonable degree
of measurement invariance across languages and populations to be able to make
meaningful comparisons between them. Even so, the results may not be at all
what you expected. Perhaps the theories and instruments do not perform as they
are supposed to do. Of course, on a purely scientific basis such findings would
be extremely important. But perhaps researchers still find it is easier to just
stick to studying well-known populations under well-known conditions in order
to more easily find support for their hypotheses and publish their work.

Moving forward

The WEIRD-problem needs to attain the same status as
the false positives-problem in psychology. As Rad, Martingano, and Ginges
(2018) suggest, authors need to do a much better job reporting sample characteristics, explicitly tying findings to populations, justifying the sampled population, discussing the
generalizability of the findings, and investigating existing diversity in their
samples. Journals and funders need to start encouraging
these practices. Given all the work involved in conducting non-WEIRD research
and the fierce competition over research funding and space in high-impact
journals, we are unlikely to see any real change unless the inclusion of non-WEIRD
research will give extra points.

When it comes to the problem with WEIRD perspectives, psychology
might need to become more open to scholarship born out of non-WEIRD (particularly
non-US) contexts. An increased openness to philosophical, meta-theoretical, historical,
and anthropological scholarship in general, which is for the most part
completely ignored in psychological science today, would be particularly
helpful. That would help us both to address the WEIRD-problem and to make
psychology a more theoretically sophisticated science.