Cultural WEIRDos

Despite its ultimate aim to benefit society, the psychological aspects of culture have historically been overlooked because many elements of culture cannot be observed. For example, the way that gender roles are learned is a cultural process, as is the way that people think about their own sense of duty toward their family members. Also, there has been an overrepresentation of research conducted using human subjects from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic nations (WEIRD). Findings from psychology research utilizing primarily W.E.I.R.D. populations are often labeled as universal theories that explain psychological phenomena but are inaccurately, and inappropriately, applied to other cultures.

A crowd of students wearing college graduation regalia.
How confident can we be that the results of social psychology studies generalize to the wider population if study participants are largely of the WEIRD variety? [Image: Mike Miley,, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Recent research findings revealing that cultures differ in many areas, such as logical reasoning and social values has become increasingly difficult to ignore. For example, many studies have shown that Americans, Canadians and western Europeans rely on analytical reasoning strategies, which separate objects from their contexts to explain and predict behavior. Social psychologists refer to the fundamental attribution error or the tendency to explain people’s behavior in terms of internal, inherent personality traits rather than external, situational considerations (e.g. attributing an instance of angry behavior to an angry personality). Outside W.E.I.R.D. cultures, however, this phenomenon is less prominent, as many non-W.E.I.R.D. populations tend to pay more attention to the context in which behavior occurs. Asians tend to reason holistically, for example by considering people’s behavior in terms of their situation; someone’s anger might be viewed as simply a result of an irritating day (Jones, 2010; Nisbet et al., 2005). Yet many long-standing theories of how humans think rely on the prominence of analytical thought (Heinrich, 2010).

By studying only W.E.I.R.D. populations, psychologists fail to account for a substantial amount of diversity of the global population. Applying the findings from W.E.I.R.D. populations to other populations can lead to a miscalculation of psychological theories and may hinder psychologists’ abilities to isolate fundamental cultural characteristics.

A major goal of cultural psychology is to have many and varied cultures contribute to basic psychological theories in order to correct these theories so that they become more relevant to the predictions, descriptions, and explanations of all human behaviors, not just Western ones (Shweder & Levine, 1984).


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Culture and Psychology Copyright © 2020 by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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