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2021’s Top Ten: #6

How W.E.I.R.D. is your data?

Business psychology has fought tooth and nail for decades to gain more relevance. Despite its best efforts, the sector is still plagued by the same flaw that affects every social science: WEIRDness. In this context, “WEIRD” stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic countries. Essentially, a vast majority of studies across psychology base all of their findings and results on studies of WEIRD populations. It’s not just psychology, but other sciences as well: studies of visual perception, hereditary IQ, and spatial reasoning; all are based on these populations. And when one digs deeper, the reality becomes clearer: most psychology study participants are not just from WEIRD countries, but they are college students.

College students are so widely used because they are a population that is cheap and easy to access. For example, psychology and anthropology students are often required to participate in studies as a degree requirement. Or, if not required, they can be compensated relatively cheaply because their time is not as valuable. There is nothing inherently wrong with using college students for studies, or WEIRDness in general, but it is problematic when scientists propose conclusions about broad populations based on a “thin, unusual slice of humanity”. If you think about it, college students are not very representative of the global population. Their emotions and behaviours are not the be-all and end-all; they face few problems that 80% of the world’s population faces. So, when a psychological study makes any conclusion about human nature, it may be an overreach.

Recently, more researchers have started to qualify their findings with “in Western society” or “in college populations”. But as first-year psychology students learn, the vast majority of public’s psychology knowledge comes from news articles, not scientific journals. And those articles rarely discuss WEIRDness; in fact, they often sensationalise headlines. They take the conclusions of scientists, which may be full of reservations, and apply them to global society.

Experts who research and discuss WEIRDness do not propose throwing the baby out with the bathwater. All of this research is valuable, and we can draw important conclusions from it. And in business contexts, this college population is not entirely irrelevant. After all, many of these psychology students will find their way into multinationals, often as HR Experts. That said, there are limitations. Say a study is conducted in Oklahoma, a state not known for its universities or economic opportunities. Are the students who study there the same types of students who choose to study at prestigious universities in the UK or Germany? Is it really proper to compare conclusions drawn from their behaviour?

Business psychology encounters a lot of suspicion, and rightly so. People use business psychology tools and assessments to select, promote, and develop people. Thus, there are real, human ramifications to business psychology studies. If the data and studies behind those tools are overly WEIRD, and not tailored to the populations the tools are eventually applied to, then they should be met with a healthy dose of wariness.