When Radiohead’s Thom Yorke sang the lyrics, “I’m a creep / I’m a weird-o / What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here” on their break-through (and breath-taking) song “Creep”, I felt like he had something special to say to me. I connected. So here’s the news. It turns out he was talking about all of us. At least all of us living in the western world anyway.
I first read about the WEIRD acronym (which stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”.
Haidt reports that, “in 2010 Joe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ara Norenzayan published a profoundly important article titled “The Weirdest People in the World?”. [They] pointed out that nearly all research in psychology is conducted on a very small subset of the human population: people from cultures that are [WEIRD]. They then reviewed dozens of studies showing that WEIRD people are statistical outliers; they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalisations about human nature.”
This is how it works. We conduct a lot of social and psychological experiments in the West – a culture which takes as its cornerstone a belief in individualism and individual freedom – and then use the results to draw universal conclusions about human nature. Trouble is that these results often don’t often stand up to scrutiny in cultures where people prioritise groups and communities ahead of individuals. Which, by the way, is probably the majority of the way the rest of the world works.
So where does that leave us? Well, with a large batch of experiments that might need a rethink, as well as the whole bunch of assumptions about human nature that we’ve drawn from them. Experimenters will need to learn to get off campus more when looking for people to test their theories on too, and probably look at even getting out of their continent. Until then, we might need to put some of those generalisations we have about each other on hold.