5 WEIRD Populations/Unrepresentative Sampling

Representation of populations or samples used across science is extremely important in ensuring accurate reflection in experimentation and statistics. For example, misrepresentation of samples used in biology would be studying the effects of antibiotics on only one type of microorganism, while in environmental science, it would be studying the effects of disturbance on one type of species within an ecosystem. In this paper, we focus on the use of samples in Psychology that are not representative of the broader population. This misrepresentation is due to the over reliance of Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic (WEIRD) people. Strictly speaking, WEIRD is a problematic phenomenon in experimentation and statistics because most research in psychology because is based on underrepresented samples of college students from the United States and Europe.

Undoubtedly, Western students are not the greatest representation of human emotions, behavior, and sexuality in Psychology. WEIRD subjects only represent about twelve percent of the world’s population . This means that they differ from other populations in cognitive thinking, decision making, special reasoning, auditory or visual perception, and other psychological traits. These behaviors are based on the environment one grew up in and raised in, yet sixty-seven  percent of American psychology studies use college student as subjects. WEIRD is generally viewed as something that skews our understanding of human behavior. An analysis conducted by the researchers from the University of British Columbia finds that people from WEIRD societies not only represent as much as 80 percent of study participants, but are also outliers. Often times, findings from studies involving WEIRD subjects are assigned and generalized to the world’s population and are published in leading journals, such as (1) the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology or (2) the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Journals such as the ones mentioned above, publish original research and theory on human social behavior and related phenomena. According to Elsevier, an academic publishing company that publishes medical and scientific literature, The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology is a journal that “emphasizes empirical, conceptually based research that advances an understanding of important social psychological processes.” And according to the American Psychological Association, the Journal of Abnormal Psychology publishes articles on basic research and theory in the broad field of abnormal behavior, its determinants, and its correlates. These two journals, like many other leading psychology journals, have been around for decades. Let’s take a look at some articles involving WEIRD populations published in these journals.

In 1999, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published an article of a study conducted by the University of Michigan on the link between stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Stereotypically, women are thought of as having weaker math ability than men. A series of 3 studies took place in this experiment using highly qualified and equally prepared men and women with strong math backgrounds from the University of Michigan. In study 1, the experiment demonstrated that the underperformance of women on difficult math tests (not on easier math tests) was observed among a highly selected sample of men and women. Tests were scored using the standard formula for scoring the GRE (1 point for every correct question, 0 points or deduction of 1 point for every question left blank, and deduction of 1/ number of response options for every incorrect question). Women scored 1497 and men scored 1539 in the harder math test, but women scored better (1738) on the easier math test than men (1599).

In study 2, the experiment demonstrated that this difference in performance could be eliminated when stereotype threat is lowered by describing the test as not producing gender differences. The first test was described as producing gender differences and stereotype threat that were high, “As you may know there has been some controversy about whether there are gender differences in math ability. Previous research has sometimes shown gender differences and sometime shown no gender differences. Yet little of this research has been carried out with women and men who are very good in math. You were selected for this experiment because of your strong background in mathematics. In this test, women performed worse than equally qualified men did. The second test was described to show and produce no such gender differences. Results found that characterizing the second test as insensitive to gender differences eliminated women’s underperformance in this experiment.

In study 3, the experiment replicated the finding of study 2 with a less highly selected population from the University of New York at Buffalo and explored the mediation caused by stereotype threat such as anxiety that adds to the normal self-evaluative risk of performance. This kind of threat can interfere with performance. Evaluation apprehension can affect test performance by triggering anxiety and fear of confirming negative stereotypes. Subjects were asked to complete a short questionnaire that had four questions designed to measure evaluation apprehension. Similar to study 2, results found that women underperformed relative to men in the control condition, but performed equally with them in the no-gender-difference condition. The tests of mediation found that self-efficacy and evaluation apprehension are not likely to be mediators of the effects of stereotype threat on women’s test performance. Anxiety, however, is still a possible mediator of the stereotype threat effects seen in these 3 studies. Representing the test as showing no-gender-difference also lowered women’s anxiety, but it had no effects on their evaluation apprehension or their self-efficacy.

In conclusion, the study suggests that individuals who are aware of negative stereotypes belonging to his or her identified group are more at risk in confirming those stereotypes. This risk becomes higher in individuals who acknowledge their abilities in their associated domains and are confident of their skills in that field. Women who were confident in their domain-related abilities (math), performed worse than men in math when the threat (math test showed gender differences in the past) was made salient. When the math test was characterized as insensitive to gender differences, the threat of women underperforming was eliminated. However, when the same test was characterized as sensitive to gender differences, women significantly underperformed in relation to equally qualified men.

Although the study on the link between stereotype threat and women’s math performance yielded some strong, viable and reliable correlation and results, it remains that the sample used in this study was WEIRD people, students from the University of Michigan. It is important to keep in consideration that reliance on research subjects from the U.S, specifically educated students from the University of Michigan, could produce false claims about social psychology. This is so because the social psychological tendencies of WEIRD people could be unusual compared to the global population. The results could possibly be different if another sample of population (women in STEM fields from India compared or women in STEM fields from China ) was used to study stereotype threat. It is important to keep this factor in mind because generalizing could lead to misleading or inaccurate perceptions, leading to perceptual challenges regarding society’s understanding of the human behavior within Science. For example, the public may perceive the findings of the stereotype threat experiment as universal and representative to all women who are aware of the stereotype threat, and thus generalize them to having poorer performances in math compared to men.

Next, let’s look at a study on Acquisition of Behavioral Avoidance, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, conducted by a group of researchers from the University of Mannheim and University of California. To understand the link between fear acquisition and the development of behavioral avoidance in the presence of potential rewards, two experiments were conducted on students from UCLA to investigate the impact of fear conditioning on a subsequent gambling task. In experiment 1, advantageous choices (higher reward probability) were linked to a fear-relevant stimulus that was associated with an aversive unconditioned stimulus (US) during fear conditioning (conditioned stimulus, CS) in the experimental group. Disadvantageous choices (lower reward probability) were, however, linked to a safe stimulus that was never associated with the US (CS -). In the control group, fear conditioning (CS) was followed by a similar gambling task with novel stimuli.

The second experiment focused on individual predictors of avoidant decisions. Compared with the control group, individuals in the experimental groups avoided the advantageous CS choice despite fewer gains. Findings found that avoidant decisions were pronounced in highly trait anxious participants who exhibited higher fear responses. On the other hand, findings also indicated a reduction in absolute avoidance across the task. The overall findings demonstrate that fear conditioning can lead to avoidant decision making, especially in vulnerable individuals, costing parallel impairments by means of behavioral avoidance. Introducing rewards for approach, however, may counteract avoidant decisions.

Again, the participants in this research involved WEIRD people, students from UCLA, which is a very small Western sample of one subpopulation among many. The findings from the study showed that fear conditioning can lead to avoidant decision making from UCLA students, so the findings should be representative of UCLA, but not necessarily the human population which society can mistake. Not everyone from different worlds, cultures, etc. will react the same way in fear conditioning because one’s reaction may depend a lot on other psychological factors associated with his or her life.

Let’s look at one more example: The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues investigated the impact of situational variables on human behavior by looking at the impact of becoming a prisoner or prison guard in a simulated prison environment. A mock prison was set up in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building. Twenty-four Stanford undergraduate students, with no criminal background, no psychological issues, and no significant medical conditions, were selected to play the roles of both prisoners and guards for $15 a day. The simulated prison included three cots and three 6X9 foot prison cells which held three prisoners. The 24 participants were randomly assigned to the prisoner group or the guard group. Prisoners were instructed to remain in the mock prison 24-hours a day whereas guards were instructed to work in groups of 3 for eight-hour shifts a day and could return home after their shifts. The experiment was supposed to last for 2 weeks, but was stopped on the 6th day due to abusive and anxiety-induced behaviors. The guards became abusive and the prisoners showed signs of extreme stress and anxiety. Guards interacted with the prisoners aggressively and in a dehumanizing way. Prisoners experienced negative emotions and acute anxiety which stopped the experiment. The researchers themselves also lost sight of the reality of the situation because they had overlooked the abusive behavior of the guards until a graduate student questioned the morality of continuing the experiment. Some participants, however, were able to resist the situational temptations to be in dominance while maintaining morality and decency. This experiment demonstrated the powerful role that the situation can play in human behavior.

The Stanford Prison experiment is frequently criticized for the lack of generalizability due to many factors such as the unrepresentative sample of participants which included mostly White and middle-class males, making it difficult to apply the findings and results to a wider population. Despite this criticism, this experiment remains an important study in understanding how the situation can influence human behavior and apply it to real-world examples.


According to the article, The Weirdest People in the World, Researchers, Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, says that most behavioral science theory is built upon research involving a narrow sample of human variation. As shown in the researches above, WEIRD subjects tend to be outliers on a range of measurable psychological traits such as one’s social perception, emotional decision making, sensitivity, and dominance.

Researchers, implicitly tend to assume that there is little variation across human populations and WEIRD subjects are used as standard subjects to represent other populations, resulting to the assumption that their findings are also universal. To test this assumption, the University of British Columbia reviewed the comparative database from across behavioral sciences which suggests that there is a substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are unusual compared with other populations.

It is also important to keep in mind that the examination of the representativeness of WEIRD subjects was also restricted to the limited database was currently available, therefore the examination was guided by a rhetorical approach and should not be taken as the explanation for variation. The analysis contrasted (1) people from modern industrialized societies with those from small-scale societies, (2) people from Western societies and those from non-Western industrialized societies were also contrasted as well, and (3) university-educated Americans with non-university-educated Americas, depending on the available data.

Visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ were reviewed. Findings showed that members of WEIRD societies are among the least representative populations for generalization about humans. Therefore, one cannot claim that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on the sampling of a single subpopulation. This suggests that we cannot address behavioral phenomenon found in these experiments to human nature based on the data drawn from a narrow group of WEIRD subjects. Why is it that researchers base their studies on WEIRD subjects then?

Henrich states that students from Western nations are a convenient and low-cost data pool. The comparative database of research from across the behavioral sciences also finds that subjects from WEIRD societies are generally more individualistic, analytic, concerned with fairness, existentially anxious and less conforming and attentive to context compared to those from non-WEIRD societies. All of these difference in traits could skew a study’s results and findings, changing how one might understand the human behavior in psychology. There is a possibility that human behaviors would vary among different situations upon using different groups of subjects. Therefore, findings cannot be applied to a broader population because not every subpopulation may have the same induced-behavior.

When it comes down to encountering WEIRD subjects in scientific information or discoveries, one should keep in mind that the findings of the study does not necessarily represent the entire human race. The public should also keep in mind that although findings from WEIRD subject studies may not be representative of the human population, they do offer valuable insights to our understanding of the human behavior and how emotional factors, social factors, environmental factors, and etc. play a role in it. Perhaps, it is not just WEIRD subjects the public should look out for. As mentioned above, Henrich states that researchers assume that there is little variation across human populations, so WEIRD subjects are used as standard subjects to represent other populations. Therefore, the public should also look out for WEIRD researchers and potentially bring awareness to them about the perceptual challenges in regards to misleading and inaccurate information that WEIRD subjects may bring to the understanding of the human behavior. Perhaps, to counteract the wide use of WEIRD subjects across psychological studies, researchers who are aware of the impact WEIRD subjects has on the understanding of human behavior, should replicate a similar experiment but with a diverse group that could potentially represent the human population. For example, researchers could set up an experiment to see and compare how the gender stereotype threat can affect math performances among women in STEM from India, women in STEM from China, and women belonging to the WEIRD population.


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