Santa Fe Institute

This week at SFI: Is social science built on WEIRDness?

March 16, 2016 9:44 a.m.

There’s something odd about social science: namely, that our generalized understanding of broad swaths of humanity is based on a startlingly narrow subset of that humanity. Many social science studies have, in fact, been based on sample groups of wealthy college students from industrialized countries, a recognized problem in these fields.

Psychologists and anthropologists convene at SFI this week to try to figure out what to do about what’s called, appropriately, the WEIRD problem.

“The vast majority of scientific theory on human thought and behavior is derived from easily accessible populations in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or WEIRD, nations,” says evolutionary anthropologist Dan Hruschka, co-organizer of this week's working group to tackle WEIRDness. “In fact, those people are often extreme outliers, which raises questions about the generalizability of contemporary theories in the social and behavioral sciences.”

The issue isn’t that scientists can’t learn anything from looking at one group of people. Darwin, after all, made great strides by examining just Galapagos finches. On the other hand, the recognized symptoms of heart attacks were for decades based entirely on studies of men – and women, it turns out, don’t experience the same heart-attack symptoms. That led to a big blind spot in clinical knowledge.

The same issues crop up in social science, says Hruschka, an associate professor at Arizona State University, an ASU-SFI fellow, and a former SFI Omidyar Fellow. “Working in diverse settings outside the US or Europe,” he says, “you begin to realize the importance of culture and the local environment in shaping not just what people think, but how they think.” If scientists want to understand the full diversity of humanity, Hruschka says, they need to take WEIRDness seriously.

The invitation-only working group, Combating Sample WEIRDness in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, is taking some of the first steps to tackle the problem. With funding from the National Science Foundation’s Developmental and Learning Sciences and Cultural Anthropology programs, the group is outlining the key barriers to research in more diverse settings, as well as some solutions. In future meetings, Hruschka says, they’ll work on developing recommendations and tools so that others can more easily fight WEIRDness.

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