Thoughts about the WEIRD people

Earlier in the week, whilst perusing the Freakonomics blog, I came across this interesting article about some new research which suggests that the psychology of WEIRD people, aka people from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies (I know – that’s clever what they’ve done there, isn’t it) is very different from those in other cultures.

This is a particular problem because many psychology and behavioural economics research papers are based on samples from WEIRD societies but imply that the results hold universally across the human population.

Clearly the extent to which this is a problem depends on what use the research is put to. Some  experiments are undertaken with a particular policy question in mind: for example, looking at whether providing more information on financial products helps consumers make better decisions. For this purpose, it doesn’t matter if people on the other side of the world would behave differently: what matters is the behaviour of people likely to be affected by the policy.

There is also the question of whether various experiments and pieces of research are really directly comparable across countries. However, the most convincing results for me are on the Muller-Lyer optical illusion – or rather illusion in some cultures, because in some hunter gatherer tribes, there is no illusion at all: they see both lines as the same length.

Why this might be the case is a bit of a mystery: the authors suggest that “growing up in an industrial-era environment with plenty of 90-degree lines and carpentered edges led to WEIRD people’s sense of vision being susceptible to the deception.” I’m not an expert in psychology (or optical illusions, for that matter) but it seems surprising that being exposed to plenty of straight lines would make you less able to gauge their length. I wonder whether a possible explanation could also be the type of work that people do in WEIRD countries: less physical, manual work where gauging distances is not as important a skill. It would be interesting to test whether there are any differences across people in different areas of work within WEIRD countries.

All in all, very interesting, and definitely weird.

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