Thoughts on Psychology

Psychology’s subjects

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Psychology is usually pursued as a science akin to the natural sciences, attempting to find universal laws of behaviour that explain all humans. Central to this view is the idea that it doesn’t matter what humans we study, since we all have the same fundamental psychological processes. However, for many phenomena in human psychology this isn’t necessarily true, and arguably much of our psychological function is a reflection of our cultural background. If this is the case, then it’s a problem that Western psychology tends to only investigate Western participants and Western concepts, and then tries to apply the resultant theories to all people. For example, Hwang (2005) describes the modernising approach to intervention in the developing world, which imposed Western notions of individualism on other societies as the “right” goal for development, while Watters (2010) describes how Western definitions of mental illness are being exported to other cultures to the detriment of members of those cultures.

As the references above suggest, there is some awareness of the problem of generating “universal” theories of human nature without paying regard to cultural differences, and specifically the problems posed by studying exclusively Western participants and assuming the results hold true for other peoples. A couple of good articles address this head issue head on.

Arnett (2008) analyses research published in APA journals and finds that participants are overwhelmingly drawn from the 5% of the world’s population who are from the USA. He analyses the problems this causes, and suggests some solutions. The abstract reads:

This article proposes that psychological research published in APA journals focuses too narrowly on Americans, who comprise less than 5% of the world’s population. The result is an understanding of psychology that is incomplete and does not adequately represent humanity. First, an analysis of articles published in six premier APA journals is presented, showing that the contributors, samples, and editorial leadership of the journals are predominantly American. Then, a demographic profile of the human population is presented to show that the majority of the world’s population lives in conditions vastly different from the conditions of Americans, underlining doubts of how well American psychological research can be said to represent humanity. The reasons for the narrowness of American psychological research are examined, with a focus on a philosophy of science that emphasizes fundamental processes and ignores or strips away cultural context. Finally, several suggestions for broadening the scope of American psychology are offered.

Henrich et al (2010) go further in identifying problems with relying on Western participants, arguing in depth that Westerners are importantly different from other peoples on important characteristics, and that these differences colour the results of psychology research. The abstract reads:

Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers—often implicitly—assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species—frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior—hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

References

Arnett, Jeffrey J. (2008) The Neglected 95%. American Psychologist, Vol 63(7), pp. 602-614.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol 33(2-3), pp. 61-83.

Hwang, K.-K. (2005). The indigenous movement. The Psychologist, 18(2), 80-83.

Watters, E. (2010). Crazy Like Us: The globalization of the American Psyche. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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