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Is Society is WEIRD?

Even when deciding to write this I had to stop & think, who is the ‘society’ we’re talking about? We often use the term assuming it refers to a single entity that we all experience in the same way. But what we experience is not what/how everyone in the world experiences life.

For example, in the West children typically recognise themselves in the mirror at around 18-24 months of age. This is a huge leap in development as it marks the emergence of a sense of self (click here to read more about this). Researchers test this by surreptitiously placing rouge/blush on the child’s forehead & then wait to see if when shown a mirror, the child tries to remove it. This ‘mirror self-recognition’ test has been claimed to be a universal index of self-concept in children.

However, children in places like Kenya & Peru often fail this test, sometimes not passing until 7-8 years of age. Do these children not have a self-concept until then? Unlikely, other measures show their sense of self is healthy & intact. Instead, it may be that mirrors are less familiar to them, they are less comfortable in a research setting, or they don’t know what they’re supposed to do when confronted with an unfamiliar marking on their forehead.

Children from the U.S. account for 57% of research participants but only 4% of the world's population. Almost everything research psychologists believe about the human mind comes from studies of the WEIRD (i.e., Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich & Democratic societies). ⁠These societies are not only unrepresentative of humans as a species, but there are differences between WEIRD and non-WEIRD communities in some fundamental aspects of child development (e.g. time spent with non-parental caregivers & peers).⁠

WEIRD studies are valuable & tell us a lot about how WEIRD populations behave & learn. What they CAN'T tell us about is human development as a whole. Too often, research findings are touted as universal. We can't underestimate the role of culture, privilege & access to education in how human development is expressed.⁠

References: Nielsen et al., 2017⁠; Broesch et al 2011

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