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Oct 22 2013

A Tale of Two Weirds

Bobo dolls are also weeeeeird.

Science is weird, and it is WEIRD.

On the one hand, we have the weird stuff. The study of youtube videos. How long mammals take to pee.  The farting salmon. Heck, everything about the IgNobels. Psychology, for the record, is not exempt. Have you seen the BoBo doll experiments?

Imaginary Bandura to imaginary research assistant: Could you just go in this room, and ah, punch the lights out of this inflatable doll? Look like you’re enjoying it, and keep it up for at least five minutes.

There’s some fascinating arguments that we should maybe talk less about this ‘weird’ science, that when we laugh and sigh and say ‘they spent all that money to study what about snails?’ we’re actually devaluing important research in the eyes of the people who just see it in the newspaper. And I really really want research to be done because it might add something of value to what we know, not because the results will sound impressive*. So I lean towards agreeing–maybe we should frame it less as “how weird and arcane and odd it is that people think this is worth spending their time on!” and more like “woah, isn’t it neat that we can learn important things from experiments like launching jellyfish into space?!”

And on then, on the other hand, there is WEIRD science, and it is this that should be keeping us up at night, leaving us a little ragged and hysterical and twitchy, not the people who swallowed shrews whole and then examined their poop.  I kid, I kid. (Not about the shrew-swallowing, though, that’s totally an actual scientific study.)

Our research studies, the ones that make grand and sweeping claims about human behavior? They come overwhelmingly from Western, educated participants living in industrialized, rich, and democratic countries.

And it’s more than just the college sophomore problem, wherein to get class credit, your collegiate 20-year-old will obligingly answer questionnaires, take the Implicit Association tests, and get trapped in endless prisoner’s dilemmas. (Trust me, as a psych-studying former college sophomore, by the three hundred and seventy second time you get asked to press Z to cooperate or M to defect, it is oooold.)

So we have this majority of research that’s conducted on a very specific–and non-majority!–of the population. And then we use it to make some Big Claims about how people think. Like, really big claims about conformity and social interventions and How Humans Got This Way. (I am making side-eyes at you, evolutionary psychology**.) And this seems to be a very incorrect plan.

Truth is, we don’t have a great handle on how much of a problem WEIRD research participants are. Though preliminary research suggests that we should be incredibly concerned by our habits of extrapolating WEIRD research to claims about human behavior. (From the abstract: “One of the least representative samples of the human population.”)

And of course, if you want to determine the usefulness of an intervention in the United States, you don’t much care to get an international sample of the world, you want to know about Americans (though here I would remind you that not all Americans are young adults attending research universities). But what if you want to know about conformity? Or gendered behavior? Or memory? Or sleep? Or IQ? Or moral development? The foundations of these are all considered solid and basic, the sort of thing you’ll see in high school, or 101…and guess who we sampled?

Look, it’s entirely possible that non-WEIRD people act just like WEIRD people. (It seems incredibly unlikely, but go with me here.) The problem is, we really don’t have enough information. And we keep brushing it off and explaining to college freshman that yes, people will conform and agree that this line is shorter than those lines at these rates. We’re missing all this potential nuance! and data!

So yes, we should probably present weird science as less about the weird, and more about the science. But WEIRD science? We need to talk about it more. Lots more.

—-

*It’s actually slightly more complicated than that, because of course I’d rather have something that gets us closer to a cure for a horrible disease or fixes some global crisis. However, this seems to be reflected in the fact that we spend more money on developing approaches to cancer than we do on investigating bellybutton lint. 

**No, I don’t think evolutionary psychology is entirely bunk. But I think it should be especially concerned about these sampling issues, and it makes me nervous that I don’t see it. 

2 comments

  1. 1
    Jacob Schmidt

    And we keep brushing it off and explaining to college freshman that yes, people will conform and agree that this line is shorter than those lines at these rates.

    Are you referencing the large, international study on the how we see this optical illusion?

  2. 2
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    What is kind of weird is that we never did the experimental subject thingumie. In the one smaller sophomore class I was in, we rated transcripts of talk therapy according to a scheme in a study done by a grad student. I know those WEIRD-subject experiments were happening somewhere, but neither I nor the few actual psych students I knew ran into them.

    Weird science isn’t necessarily bad at all, basic and original research is something we tend to drift away from, at least in the US, it seems. But some research does seem terribly awful, and does deserve an IgNobel and maybe a smack on the back of the head with some soft gloves. That includes traditionally “serious” research done poorly or fraudulently, which isn’t really weird, but more in line with the American business ethos.

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