If you are a college student, it is likely that you have seen advertisements encouraging student participation in on-campus research studies. This may have come in the form of an enthusiastic e-mail offering Amazon gift cards or a flyer taped to bathroom stall with rip-off e-mail addresses with the promise of class credit. I was first exposed to this phenomenon in my Psych 10 course, my freshman year. I completed the 6 credits of studies with the psychology department, answering questionnaires and playing around with computer simulations. At the time, I did not think much of my responses or efforts – all I wanted was my class credits. Little did I know, I was unknowingly contributing to a neglected issue in psychology research: the generalization and application of research that was done on a limited, specific population.This issue is particularly prevalent in the arena of psychological research. Data suggests that most psychological research studies are done on WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) participants, even though only 12% of the world actually consists of this population. This brings into question the validity and generalizability of these research findings.
In fact, each aspect of WEIRD populations is a point of contention. Western nations have different cultural norms than Eastern nations. How can research done on the psychological basis behind social stigmas be directly applied from American participants to Asian populations? Level of education is an even bigger matter. Many psychological studies are conducted in universities, where students are easily attainable (and eager) participants. This data is collected from intellectual, educated, young adults. In this case, there is a biological difference in the development of the adolescent brain, compared to older individuals. In addition, the accessibility to education also impacts the psyche of college students, differentiating them from those who do not have exposure to higher education. Similar issues lie with applying research from industrialized, rich, and democratic populations. These conditions of living cannot be directly extended to other populations, limiting the generalizability of the research. Recent studies have actually suggested that WEIRD populations may be outliers from other populations, making data derived from them even less generalizable.
From an ethical perspective, such discrepancies pose issues because psychological research is applied to a multitude of fields and used to make consequential decisions. Each different use of this research poses a unique set of problems that should not be ignored. One example is the use of psychological research to make policies. Often, policymakers look at the thought and decision-making patterns of populations, to make policies, such as fiscal regulations or healthcare sanctions. However, if these patterns are determined from research conducted on American college students, it would be unjust to use the same data for other, different populations. Consider an example where a team of American economists is seeking to aid the fiscal development of a rural village in Africa. They look at credible psychological research outlining spending patterns and psychological motivations for achieving economic stability. This data is consolidated to outline several plans to encourage the development of the African villages, taking into account income discrepancies and different standards of living. However, this data still does not accurately represent the perspective of the villagers, because it was based on data collected from a large sample of college students. Consequently, because of the ill-fitting methods used by the American team of economists, the villagers could actually suffer.
A similar example is present In the field of healthcare as well. Psychological therapies are generally developed and tested on WEIRD populations. While the exhaustive tests and observations have led to the advancement of therapies, these therapies should only be applied towards a limited population. Their application outside of a WEIRD population would be irresponsible and ineffective. For example, consider a behavioral therapy technique developed based on the peer networks of college students. Ethically, this same technique cannot be extended to parents living in low-income neighborhoods, for example. The brain development, life experiences, social factors, and environment of these two groups is significantly different. There is an incredibly deep degree of separation.
This is not to say all psychological research should be discontinued and disregarded. We can still obtain valuable insights from this data. However, researchers have to be more careful how they generalize their findings and the research has to be validated before it can be applied towards other purposes. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Studies are more credible if they use larger sample sizes, to support their findings. Often, because these studies are being completed in WEIRD settings, mostly WEIRD populations are available to participate. Until a better alternative research method is employed, researchers are encouraging their colleagues to discuss the limitations of their findings and what that can mean for the field of psychology.