Who are the subjects of psychology research?

// 7 December 2009

What impact does it have on psychology research, that the vast majority of subjects are from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) countries? Vagina Dentata has posted a really interesting analysis of this, based on some recent research.

Probably the most striking point for me:

A recent analysis of the top journals in six sub-disciplines of Psychology from 2003-2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and 96% of subjects were from Western industrialised countries, specifically North America, Europe, Australia, and Israel (Arnett, 2008) reflecting the academics country of residence.

This means that 96% of psychological samples come from countries with only 12% of the world’s population.

Comments From You

gadgetgal // Posted 7 December 2009 at 9:45 am

I’m really glad you brought this up – it’s been a bugbear of mine since those studies showing women favouring pink is from our hunter gatherer past. The conclusion they came up with was that it absolutely must be that women used to do the gathering and men did the hunting, even though apparently Chinese men also favoured the same colour range (that, of course, was down to cultural differences, whereas ours couldn’t possibly be!!!).

It’s a tricky thing to balance using statistics and studies, which to prove a point you do kind of have to, with the fact that a lot of them are debatable in themselves. I think it’s better to ignore the headlines the papers plug telling you a supposed outcome and just spend time reading what the studies actually say, as well as bear in mind that by the very nature of the samples they’re going to be biased towards the affluent west, so general male versus female biological conclusions are best left alone!

And I have to add, it’s always seemed dicey to me to place a biological conclusion on something that hasn’t been proved biologically anyway – asking people their opinions doesn’t really give you much when you’re talking evolution or even brain chemistry, it’s too influenced by the way we live rather than being something inate within us!

Jennifer Drew // Posted 7 December 2009 at 11:59 am

Not forgetting too, that ‘science’ is never objective or gender neutral but is always viewed and researched within prevailing (male-dominant) cultural definitions. Not too long ago male scientists blithely claimed education for women would shrink their vastly smaller brains!!

Claiming prehistoric history supposedly proves an ‘evolutionary theory’ is totally without foundation because there is no written evidence of what prehistoric women and men thought or believed was true. So now we need to add on fact much of the current western research only relates to a tiny percentage of women and men and even then this percentage is even smaller given the subjects are always predominantly white, middle-class, young and heterosexual.

So, no women are not more avid shoppers than men and ‘pink’ is not a feminised colour.

Ole // Posted 7 December 2009 at 1:34 pm

Not only that. When I was in university there were a couple of psychology students in my dorm. They told me that the vast majority of subjects were other psychology students, because medical test subjects were paid a lot more than psychological subjects so nobody (or very few) non-psychology students wanted to do psychological tests.

Alex Catgirl // Posted 7 December 2009 at 2:42 pm

68% of subjects came from the US, and 96% of subjects were from Western industrialised countries, specifically North America, Europe, Australia

That makes sense actually, it’s analogous to the difference between studying animals in the wild (Western industrialised countries) vs. animals in captivity (the rest of the world).

Western industrialised countries consistently rank at the top of various “freedom” rankings, meaning that the observed behaviours are natural, as opposed to conformance to rigorously imposed/enforced social norms.

The other favoured group of study subjects are small, isolated groups of indigenous people in very remote locations, who constitute 0.5% of the global population, at best.

The male/female split is far more pathetic. When I was fairly certain I was bisexual, curiosity got the best of me so I looked up scientific articles on bisexuality to see how my experiences compared to the norm.

Most of the studies focused on the experiences of young bisexual males, the researchers stating that while females were also bisexual, and they too had a slight preference for one gender over the other, their sexuality was more fluid so they decided not to study it.

Um yeah, it’s that fluidity that prompted me to refer to refer to myself as bisexual instead of a lesbian…morons.

Legible Susan // Posted 7 December 2009 at 3:27 pm

Alex Catgirl, the observed behaviours are natural, as opposed to conformance to rigorously imposed/enforced social norms. Wow, what Western industrialised country do you live in where that’s the case? Pretty much every article on this site is about the enforcement of social norms in one way or another.

Rachel H-G // Posted 7 December 2009 at 3:38 pm

I am a semi-regular psychology and neuroscience guinea pig.

I’m not sure where all the subjects are recruited from, but most are university students and a fair few are impoverished postgrads looking for a few quid.

I’d be interested to hear if recruitment happened in other areas of society, and whether it is reported in the final write-ups.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 7 December 2009 at 4:13 pm

Ole- that is exactly what I was going to say. In my experience, the vast majority of psychological testing is done on uni students, unless people are looking at a particular type of behaviour- like criminals, drug addicts etc.

My bug bear with a lot of psychology is the lack of historical perspective. I mean pink wasn’t even associated with girls 100 years ago, so it’s hardly a ‘natural’ choice.

But more seriously and, partly in reponse to Alex Catgirl, very few pyschologists believe that the vast majority of behaviour is ‘natural’. There is a subset of evolutionary psychologists who argue certain behaviours are biological and they often say ridiculous things which are picked up by the media. Most other psychologists recognise that most psychology is cultural- why else would we have to spend so much time on the couch figuring out how our parent’s f**d us up, if it was all inevitable? I think so little work is done on the ‘rest of the world’ because the funding comes from Western govts who are only interested in their own populations. I think we assume that other countries do their own research, but when they don’t have the financial infrastructure, it of course doesn’t happen.

polly // Posted 8 December 2009 at 7:00 am

Most ‘psychology’ we see in the press is simple cultural prejudice dressed up, and it always amazes me that those who come up with it are being paid to hold academic posts when their research/conclusions are so questionable – even allowing for press misrepresentation, which is usually a big factor.

I remember one widely reported one, that women were more likely to have orgasms with more affluent men which completely ignored the fact that a) when people self report ANYTHING there is an inbuilt problem of bias and b) it was conducted entirely in China where cultural factors may be very different. It then drew the unsustainable conclusion that this was an evolutionary survival tactic, rather than the slightly more probable one that more affluent people may have better sex lives because they don’t have other life stresses, and women higher up the class structure may be more aware of their own sexual satisfaction.

I think what I’m trying to say is that evolutionary psychology is bollocks.

Rachel H-G // Posted 8 December 2009 at 10:17 am

Feminist Avatar – I’m not sure about psychology, but there are thriving research communities in other fields in Asia and the Spanish-speaking world. Their work often doesn’t see the light of day as it is not often translated into English.

I agree with the rest of your post as well.

Butterflywings // Posted 8 December 2009 at 11:08 am

polly – I blame the media on this one. ‘Evo psych’ is mostly bollocks, I agree, but what I am saying is that the evo psych rubbish that gets reported in the media isn’t representative of psychology.

Psychologists have mainly shown that men and women *aren’t* that different in the way they think…but you won’t see that reported in the press!

I do remember reading about that Chinese study – ha – you’re right, but also, they asked the women *in front of their partners* if I remember correctly!

Feminist Avatar // Posted 8 December 2009 at 11:05 pm

@Rachel H-G- your totally right- I was being a bit sweeping in my generalisation. Furthermore as universities develop in Africa and other areas of the world (which is happening), we should see a much broader range of perspectives- although how much attention will be paid to them by English-speaking world is still to be seen.

Louise // Posted 10 December 2009 at 3:14 pm

@Butterfly wings – I couldn’t agree more! I’m a scientist and researcher in psychology and I’m infinitely frustrated by what passes for “pop psychology” in media reporting. Thousands of studies showing that male and female participants perform at equal levels of competence, and hundreds of studies showing that any reported differences (such as in map-reading) can be traced to environmental experience and expectations (not biology) … they all get ignored.

However, when it comes to WEIRD participants in experiments, it’s worth noting that the original article in the Psychologist was written by two forensic psychologists. And OF COURSE if you’re trying to figure out criminal behaviour, it’s pretty pointless trying to draw conclusions from data taken from a bunch of psychology students.

But don’t tar all of us with the same brush. Lots of important research in psychology needs control subjects to compare against clinical populations (such as people with depression, or with brain injury) – here, it’s entirely appropriate to test WEIRD participants because you need to compare like with like. Then there are the areas of psychology that examine what are essentially skills of a developed and educated civilisation – reading, abstract reasoning, etc. – where WEIRD participants are the only possible population to test. Even within a set of WEIRD participants, psychologists often still have to collect information about level of education, socioeconomic status, etc. and make sure that these factors don’t influence the results.

Pop-psychologists that bang on about sex differences being due to our hunter-gatherer past make most real psychology researchers roll their eyes in disgust. Even worse, there are some real evolutionary psychologists (they compare humans with other species) who have nothing to do with these pseudo-scientific excuses for misogyny, but are embarrassed to mention their field in conversation in case people think they’re part of the “women can’t read maps” brigade.

I occasionally get emails from marketing companies who want me – as an academic – to add my name to some stupid claim (the last one was about how people buy red roses on Valentine’s Day because we’re hardwired to link red with warmth, romance, etc.). I politely tell them to **** off, but obviously not everyone does…

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