Nautilus

The Cultural Distances Between Us

If you ask Siri to show you the weirdest people in the world, what images might you see? In fact, none. Siri showed me different links to the same scientific paper, published a decade ago, with the questioning title, “The weirdest people in the world?”

By some stroke of luck, or a divine favor from the science-communication gods, “weird” turns out to be an acronym for capturing the weirdness of people raised in Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies. WEIRD people, like myself and many of you reading this, are, unfortunately, part of a problem that still faces psychology, a discipline largely dedicated to parsing what all humans share in common: The field’s research subjects are too damn weird. For too long, psychologists have focused their research on “one particular culture,” Michael Muthukrishna, an assistant professor of economic psychology at the London School of Economics, told me. “To be honest, it’s worse than that, because scientists were actually looking at a subset of that population, undergraduates, who aren’t representative of less educated populations within the country.”

CULTURAL IQ: “Humanity is much smarter than any of us,” says Michael Muthukrishna. “Because of cultural evolutionary forces, over time we are acquiring social norms and institutions and beliefs, and things that work.”Gerard Ward Photography

Last month, a story in how “The weirdest people in the world?” has made waves in the years since Joseph Henrich, now at Harvard University, wrote the paper with his colleagues. The WEIRD people problem is well documented—psychological findings based on Western populations don’t replicate in non-WEIRD populations—yet psychologists have yet to rectify this limitation. Muthukrishna, who did his doctoral dissertation under Henrich, said cross-cultural psychologists often still rely on online “convenience sampling” from around the world, yet participants are called this “The Problem That Psychology Can’t Shake.”

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