Current Affairs

The WEIRDness of Scientific Associations

17th September 2020

Franco Viviani, former President of the International Council for Physical Activity and Fitness Research, and anthropologist at the University of Padua, Italy, reflects on the concept of WEIRDness and its implications for medical organizations.

WEIRD is an acronym with which some cultural psychologists, ten years ago, labelled the majority of the studies found in the psychological domain. In fact, they realized that more than 90% of the published papers found in relevant literature in their field belonged to Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic societies, aka WEIRD. Even if they actually represent a minority in the world (probably from 20 to 30% of the human population), the  influence of WEIRD people at a global level is very high, as they tend to think analytically rather that holistically, control intentions when analyzing moral judgements, and are usually more individualistic and more critical towards their group. They act in such a manner because they assume that personality traits, the sense of self and personal characteristics are prominent. 

A slice of humanity

However, it’s fair to argue that WEIRD scientists represent just a thin slice of humanity. They are in fact some sort of sub-population and not representative of mankind. 

At this point, if you are reading these lines, you’re probably a WEIRD, because of your background or you deeply introjected WEIRDness. However, you cannot ignore that many papers on non-WEIRD subjects show that the majority of human population thinks in other ways. The American Psychologist (vol. 63, page 602) demonstrated that two-thirds of the subjects involved in psychological studies were conducted by undergraduate WEIRD students and that more than 90% of the guinea pigs came from Western industrialized countries. This definitely needs a rethink, or even a re-organization of behavioural sciences, not only to better understand human nature, but also to reconsider mankind in a “non-Western-centric” way. It is simply not possible to construct universal theories when you start with a unusual slice of the global population.

What are the implications for scientific associations? Usually they gather people from different corners of the world whose scientific background is similar, with all the implications and the approximations that this entails. If WEIRDness is more commonly found in “hard science” associations (even if they gladly accept the contributions of oriental philosophies), it is more nuanced in behavioural sciences, where conflicting ideas coming from different Weltanschauungs often arise.

For example, in Africa the social origin of scientists is more indistinguishable that in any other continent. In many Asian countries, scientists belong to groups that were converted to science thanks to their eminent relations to wisdom or power – or both. In Malaysia, Thailand and Costa Rica, where I made field studies, a scientific attitude is more developed than in most of the African countries. However, many non-Western nations unfortunately cannot – yet – support science at the same levels as in most developed nations, with many university research centres understaffed, outdated equipment and substandard facilities.

Association executives, at this point, should not only promote international collaborations permitting communities and countries to further develop and prosper, but they must focalize their attention to novel ways of thinking. In practice, they could not only – even unconsciously – check how “WEIRD” their acolytes from non-Western countries are, but they also could look for new ideas and solutions, beyond Western cultures and their thinking styles. Unlike psychologists, who tend to recruit the most convenient testees to take part in their experiments, they must look for differences. This is, in my opinion, the best way to make some advancements in science, but it also helps create networking success.

Something to learn

What can associations learn from all this?  First of all, it is fundamental not to set up a dichotomy between WEIRD and non-WEIRD people. There is indeed a lot of variations not only between Westerners and Easterners (the most studied), but also within the societies in Western Europe.

They probably arise from the social norms connected to the various kinship systems devised around the world, because they generate different psychological adaptations to surf in the social milieu. There are societies, like some in Polynesia, in which the kinship system assures a strong feeling of security because they put the single individual inside a tight web of relationships. In many African countries, clans or tribal groups allow individuals to see themselves as part of a chain connecting the past and the future, giving them a strong sense of belonging and security.

The WEIRDness tendency undermines these feelings, as a voluntary association of strangers requires psychological adjustments in order to achieve trust from people outside their kin group.

Then there are the stereotypes. Surveys conducted to verify the idea that Westerners tend to be more individualistic and possess an analytical thinking-style, in contradiction to Easterners, who have more of a holistic view on the world, revealed that this dichotomy is simplistic (Nisbett, R. The Geography of Thought, 2004). In a nutshell, Westerners are more likely to focalize on noteworthy objects, to categorize them and to use logic to examine them; while Easterners tend to consider the context in which an object is found, then they analyze it observing how the relationships with its environment change. However, our minds are not wired differently, because all human beings are able to think both in an analytical and holistic way. It is the social context that forges the appropriate mindset, as it offers the right option moment by moment.

In conclusion, globalization and urbanization are increasing worldwide and they will spread WEIRDer thinking and lifestyles, probably causing a decrease in cultural diversity and, concurrently, restructuring how people perceive the social world and the mosaic of human relationships. I believe it’s the role of associations to go against this tide, and think globally and look for diversity and inclusion in everything they do.

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