Is Behavioural Science just too WEIRD?


Weird. It’s a word which connotates a deviation from norms or normality, often used in a negative to neutral way, almost never used in a positive way. I am here to tell you that behavioural science is weird. Not in a deviation from the norm type of way. But most definitely in a negative way. WEIRD besides being integrated slang is also an acronym within cultural studies. It stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. It refers to areas, countries and cultures around the world that fit this pattern. Unsurprisingly, most of Europe and America fall in this category. You might be wondering where I’m going with this. Not too long ago both Sarah and I interviewed Elina Halonen for the Questioning Behaviour Podcast (check out the episode here). We discussed WEIRDness in social science, predominantly within marketing. We agreed that there was too much focus on WEIRD and not enough focus on non-weird. And don’t think that WEIRD is only a plague of marketing. Behavioural science is also neck deep into WEIRD.


What does WEIRD behavioural science look like? Well, it’s testing 40 undergraduates in an American university lab to establish an effect. It’s only running surveys on political opinions on upper class British people and it’s studying the consumption patterns of predominantly white people with white collar jobs. Have you ever wondered how behavioural science came to have the amazing findings that it did? Well, someone came up with an idea, tested it and got it published (hopefully). Who was being tested? Undergraduates in the research lab, most likely. But a lot of those ideas and their testing have been done a while ago. When you could still test less than 100 people in a lab and call it a robust study, and get it published. But due to big data, this is much harder now because the sample is considered too small. It’s not exclusively due to big data either. The representativeness of those studies was questioned, as 100 undergraduates don’t exactly make up a representative sample. Most people recognized that this age and education group was too niche and argued that expansion of sample characteristics was needed. But let’s be realistic here, it’s not just age and education that matter. Undergraduates from 20 years ago are likely to be less diverse than they are now (and even now diversity is not great) representing more races, cultures, countries and socio-economic backgrounds. But even then, those who leave to go to university are a very peculiar subset of people, who are again, not representative of populations as a whole. So what is happening is that those studies are now being retested, or new findings are being tested for, on people who still aren’t remotely representative of the population as whole. There is a difference between someone from India who attended university abroad and someone who attended university within India (this is not a value judgement, but often reflects a difference in mindset, emotional state and socio-economic situations). But it’s the research done predominantly outside of India that gets published. Most of the behavioural scientific research being published is done in America, on Americans. Yet its findings are often argued to hold for populations much beyond America. But the real question here is: do they?


I have noticed whilst writing on my own topic, payment methods, that my love for cash is often met with a lot of criticism for those who are not Western. Predominantly people who reside in countries in which corruption and black market dealings are quite prominent, cash is not recommended at all. It can often be counterfeited, leaving the often innocent owner at the mercy of the law, or worse, payday lenders and other scum to make up the deficit Would I make the same recommendations with regards to how to handle your money (aka resort back to cash) if I had kept in mind this perspective? Yes. Do I often keep this perspective in mind? No. This is exactly the issue: we are very blind to experiences that are not our own, or close to us.


I have bad news when it comes to getting rid of WEIRD dominance within behavioural science: the incentive structure is rigged against accounting for non-WEIRD. As I mentioned before, a lot of research is done in America. This is no coincidence. A lot of great higher education institutions are American, but much more importantly, most of the high-ranked journals are American-based, with American editors. As such, it’s for Americans, by Americans. As such, publishing results on something non-American, with non-American data or samples is hard. This is problem one. Problem two is not much prettier, but it looks at the longer term, and might provide a glimmer of hope, despite being quite depressing. Those younger academics who enter the sector are becoming increasingly more diverse as well: they often have very different backgrounds from decennia ago, both in nationality, race, culture and socio-economic background. This is a very positive development. And here lies our hope. It will become quite obvious to these younger academic who are non-WEIRD (well they are educated and probably still quite rich, but small steps!) that they themselves are not represented within the research. That nothing is known about their country or culture, and they might seek out this opportunity to change that. This is the hopeful part. Now comes the depressing part: as mentioned before, the predominantly American system doesn’t favour this type of research. And to be a young academic is to be competing against many others for very limited places and opportunities to obtain the coveted title of “Professor.” As such, the “optimal” strategy is to research work that is easy to publish. And cross-cultural research doesn’t qualify for this description. What might happen is that when these young academics have “grown up,” meaning they know hold tenure track positions, they might go back to their initial, almost ideological research. They might. They also might not as they have been brainwashed by the system. Only time can tell.


It is for both reasons of fairness and representation that we need to stimulate the accessibility of university education and further (academic) research to the non-WEIRD. It is most likely their representation in higher education as students that will lead them to see the WEIRDness of academia, in this case behavioural science, and reject it by actively moving against it. It might also be their representation within higher education that will open up the eyes of those already in power, most likely WEIRDos, to their own ingrained bias and privilege and move the research from there. Here’s hoping. Because you have to agree with me that we have absolutely no clue whether things as simple as the endowment effect and the disposition effect hold equally in different cultures and/or nationalities where the perception of value and money are different from those of WEIRD. And that this lack of knowledge of how the majority of the world reacts to things we see as robust is completely bananas.

Signed: a WEIRDo.

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