What happens if researchers inadvertently fall prey to confirmation bias at a societal level?
Addressing this question Canadian psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia (where I am also located) recently published a paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Their research documents how most of the studies that psychologists claim show human universals are really just extrapolations from a single social group, the cultural equivalent of the psychopaths in my example. As The New York Times wrote in their review:
According to the study, 68 percent of research subjects in a sample of hundreds of studies in leading psychology journals came from the United States, and 96 percent from Western industrialized nations. Of the American subjects, 67 percent were undergraduates studying psychology — making a randomly selected American undergraduate 4,000 times likelier to be a subject than a random non-Westerner.The subpopulation that Henrich and colleagues found to be overrepresented are entirely WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) societies. While it’s bad enough that WEIRD American undergraduates are serving as our model for human behavior, what their paper goes on to document should be of concern to all behavioral and cognitive researchers (particularly those whose work focuses on human evolutionary explanations).
Henrich, J., Heine, S., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33 (2-3), 61-83 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X0999152X
Read the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in The Primate Diaries in Exile tour.