Psycho Babble

Psychology and the Elite College Undergraduate

The world is theirs; but are they the world?

By Jessica Love | November 15, 2012


A colleague of mine once worked at a prestigious private university, where she had run a number of studies on memory. Upon moving to a large state school, she promptly reran the studies. Would the modest memory effects found earlier replicate to a new population of college undergrads? Or, to put it less charitably, would the experiments still work on the state school kids? As a graduate of a large, public university, I wasn’t so much offended as I was genuinely confused.

“You mean,” I asked, “you wanted to know if the above-average students would show the same effects as the slightly-more-above-average students?” If the effect didn’t hold, I remember thinking, maybe it wasn’t much of an effect to begin with.

The results of any psychological experiment depend on its participants. And even within a single university, participants early in the semester tend to be different than those who sign up later, and those willing to do so for course credit differ from those holding out for cash. Even more problematic, the students who generally take part in a given study are the very ones who least ought to: Who’s most likely to participate in a study about the comprehension of syntactically challenging sentences? Why, linguistics students who study syntactically challenging sentences, of course.

Cognitive scientists are interested in processes that are universal. All humans have minds and eyes and ears and languages and emotions; what a priori reason would we have for expecting populations to think or see or feel differently from one another?  We may have different customs, but if you prick us, do we all not say, “Hey, cut it out!”? And so, assuming people to be people, we researchers rely on the most convenient people around: college students, or more specifically, college students at research-intensive, Western universities. Of those people who participated in studies published in top psychology journals from 2003-2007, 96 percent were from North America, Europe, Australia, or Israel.

But according to a review by University of British Columbia psychologists, led by Joseph Henrich, these folks “may well represent the worst population on which to base our understanding of Homo sapiens.” Why? It turns out that the populations of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) countries don’t always act like the rest of the world. Across many aspects of human cognition—spatial reasoning, moral reasoning, self-esteem, how well we “see” visual illusions, and even how much we attend to objects in the foreground, as opposed to what’s behind them—WEIRD populations exhibit behavior that falls at the extreme end of a cultural continuum. Henrich and his colleagues get at this phenomenon succinctly and wittily when they argue that “studying the cognitive development of folkbiology in urban children would seem the equivalent of studying ‘normal’ physical growth in malnourished children.”

Some aspects of human cognition are geographically and demographically invariant. But as the researchers rightly point out (and they’re not the first to have done so), what these are and where their boundaries fall are still open questions. There’s been a movement afoot to increase the amount of time psychologists spend attempting to replicate one another’s work—which they rarely do. It seems, though, that in addition to replicating more often, we should also be replicating more broadly, across a diverse spectrum of the population.

Really, though, barring cataclysmic changes to the incentive structures in academia, I see graduate students as the most likely way forward. Graduate students gather from all over the world, and from unrepresented parts of our own country, to study and do research at Western institutions: why not make use of their knowledge of their own communities—or, at the very least, the communities that they have better access to than we do? I’ve noticed an uptick in psycholinguistic work conducted on speakers of languages other than English coming out of English-speaking institutions. If graduate students are making psycholinguistics less Anglocentric, maybe they can make psychology itself less weird.

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