Thursday, June 10, 2021

WEIRD Times: Three Reasons to Stop Using a Silly Acronym

Those who know me will groan at the appearance of this post. WEIRD has become my personal dumping ground, with me taking any opportunity to tell people why I think they should stop using the term. I have embedded my criticisms in various papers on broader topics (such as open science or acronyms), but I reasoned that rather than pointing people to specific passages of long boring papers, or repeatedly typing out my reasons, I would just do one thorough post that I can link to when needed. Welcome!

Some of you are likely wondering what WEIRD is and why it is in all caps. WEIRD is an acronym, standing for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, introduced by Henrich et al. (2010). The gist of their argument was a simple one with which I am in full agreement: much of the behavioral sciences relies on an extremely narrow population from which it generalizes to all humanity. This fact has been well known for a very long time (Arnett, 2008; Guthrie, 1976; Hartmann et al., 2013). Henrich et al. added, however, that this fact is particularly perverse because this group that is over-sampled is notably different from the majority of humans. This group, who tends to be Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, is itself weird in the context of humanity.

I think this continues to be an important observation, and one I will not quibble with (at least not for now). No, my problem is with the acronym. The acronym is so dang catchy that it has become part of psychological researchers’ everyday nomenclature: “that literature relies on WEIRD samples,” “we need more data from non-WEIRD populations,” “the field is doing nothing to solve the WEIRD people problem,” and so on. The word has become a scientific term itself, broadly signifying “diversity,” losing contact with its constituent parts. I can tell you that plenty of people who know and use the term WEIRD could not accurately list the five elements. That is….not good.

Dear readers, here I am, asking you to stop using this term, for three reasons:

1. It is a backronym at worst, a contrived acronym at best. I covered this directly in my paper decrying the absurdity of acronyms, so I will just offer this quote:

“It is rather remarkable, particularly given that the paper was published in a supposed “top-tier” outlet, that the authors do not describe how they identified these five dimensions as constituting the focal set. Are we to believe that five core dimensions just happened to spell WEIRD and that is coincidental with the fact that their primary argument was that studies that rely on samples from WEIRD societies are, in fact, weird in relation to the rest of the world? Of course not. Clearly WEIRD is a backronym, which is fine, except that it should not be taken to have any scientific value.”

Ok, so it probably was not actually a backronym, in which the acronym is determined first and then the letters are forced to fit, but it is extremely implausible that the letters just happened to work out that way. Such an acronym might have rhetorical value, so I do not blame the authors for that, but now that the term has jumped the shark to take on scientific value, it is time to step back and re-assess things.

 2. WEIRD omits race/ethnicity (among other important dimensions of diversity). I often see people indicate that the “W” in WEIRD refers to White. It does not. In fact, the entire WEIRD paper is really quiet on the subject of race. This is ironic for a paper that is highlighting the problematic sampling bias in the behavioral sciences. Therefore, if you are using WEIRD or discussing the “WEIRD people problem,” you are contributing to the very problem the term if meant to address by continuing to ignore racial bias in the literature (see Clancy & Davis, 2019, for a detailed discussion of this issue).  

And, of course, it is not just about race/ethnicity. The original paper leaves out all kinds of potentially informative dimensions of diversity. For example, why is religion not one of the dimensions? That seems pretty important. Rich is mostly redundant with Educated, so you could consolidate those two, swap in Religious, and maintain WEIRD. Doing so, however, would raise thorny issues because you have both the USA, a very religious country, and the secular countries of Northern/Western Europe as part of the same WEIRD group. Does not really work out after all. Perhaps what the acronym stands for matters![1]

Surely, you are thinking, there was compelling rationale for why these five dimensions, in particular, are the ones that are worthy of emphasis. But I just indicated that was not the case! There was no rationale provided for why these five dimensions, and not others were included. Moreover, there was not even much rationale for why some of the focal dimensions were included. Quoting Rochat (2010) from an accompanying commentary:   

“…catchy acronyms like “WEIRD” for a population sample are good mnemonics. However, they carry the danger of distracting us from deeper issues. The last letter, D, for example, stands for “Democratic.” What does this mean, given that many Eastern cultures would not consider themselves as non-democratic, having universally elected parliaments in their countries? In using such an acronym to characterize a population sample, the authors must have a theory about what democrats and a democracy mean. They must also have some intuition as to what kind of impact such a regime might have on its citizens, as opposed to another. The democratic criterion would deserve more articulated rationale.” (p. 108)

3. WEIRD lacks specificity. Not only is WEIRD not adequately comprehensive of relevant dimensions of cultural variability, but somehow this lack of breadth is also accompanied by insufficient depth (again, see Clancy & Davis, 2019). Which countries/cultures, exactly, are WEIRD? This is far from clear. As Rochat asked, what does “Democratic” mean? In a footnote on the lead dimension, “Western,” Henrich et al. state, “We recognize that there are important limitations and problems with this label, but we use it for convenience” (p. 83). I would extend that statement to WEIRD itself.

The lack of specificity of the term has led to its over-application. WEIRD has become a shorthand for “USA, Canada, and/or (maybe some parts) of Europe.” It would probably just be clearer to go with the latter, or better yet, say exactly which populations you are referring to. A manuscript for which I was serving as editor stated that a limitation of the study was that it relied on WEIRD samples. But the samples were drawn from only two countries, which they did not name specifically. I see this kind of thing all the time. Wouldn’t it be preferable if we actually stated what we meant, with clarity, rather than adopt a vague acronym? From what I can tell from my colleagues, the answer is sadly, “no.”

I will reiterate that the Henrich et al. paper is an important one, and it helped raise awareness of representational problems in our science more effectively than the many similar papers that came before it. Nevertheless, as Dutra (2021) commented, “[WEIRD] unfortunately carries less nuance than the original paper” (p. 271). Indeed, the awareness was not accompanied by the nuance of the argument or a critical evaluation of the term WEIRD, nor how, if at all, it should be used in a scientific context. Rather, it was yet another example of researchers uncritically endorsing a simplistic heuristic for an incredibly complex issue. We need to do better.

References

Arnett, J. J. (2008). The neglected 95%: Why American psychology needs to become less American. American Psychologist, 63(7), 602–614. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.63.7.602

Clancy, K. B. H., & Davis, J. L. (2019). Soylent Is People, and WEIRD Is White: Biological Anthropology, Whiteness, and the Limits of the WEIRD. Annual Review of Anthropology, 48(1), 169–186. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102218-011133

Dutra, N. B. (2021). Commentary on Apicella, Norenzayan, and Henrich (2020): Who is going to run the global laboratory of the future? Evolution and Human Behavior, 42(3), 271–273. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2021.04.003

Guthrie, R. V. (1976). Even the rat was white: A historical view of psychology. Pearson Education.

Hartmann, W. E., Kim, E. S., Kim, J. H. J., Nguyen, T. U., Wendt, D. C., Nagata, D. K., & Gone, J. P. (2013). In search of cultural diversity, revisited: Recent publication trends in cross-cultural and ethnic minority psychology. Review of General Psychology, 17(3), 243–254. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032260

Henrich, J. (2020). The WEIRDest people in the world: How the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2–3), 61–83. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X0999152X

Lightner, A., Garfield, Z., & Hagen, E. (2021). Religion: The WEIRDest concept in the world? PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/58tgd 

Syed, M. (2020). Acronym absurdity constrains psychological science. PsyArXiv. https://psyarxiv.com/293wx

Syed, M., & Kathawalla, U. K. (in press). Cultural psychology, diversity, and representation in open science. In K. C. McLean (Ed.), Cultural methods in psychology: Describing and transforming cultures. New York: Oxford University Press. https://psyarxiv.com/t7hp2 

This post is essay no. 14 in the series, “I Got a Lot of Problems with Psychology.”


[1] Interestingly, Henrich’s new book on WEIRD focuses heavily on the role of religion, but it was not really discussed meaningfully in the original paper. See Lightner et al.’s (2021) elaboration and critique of his analysis of religion.

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