Weird people are disproportionately being used as research subjects in many areas – and it’s a global problem. Research using subjects from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies is overwhelmingly being used to inform fields from behavioural economics to digital design, psychological theory to political systems. Yet this demographic isn’t considered to be representative of the human species worldwide.
If you’re currently basing your business models and digital design on research that’s come out of WEIRD societies, you may have a problem.
WEIRD populations are the subject of many studies, but rarely predict the behaviours of the rest of the world population. Drawing on such an unrepresentative sample shows a fundamental flaw in our approach to trying to understand and predict human behaviour. For brands trying to design services, products, advertising, or websites, WEIRD-based research may have limited value when applied to other markets.
Much of the most influential research in the broader area of psychology is based on looking at WEIRD people. WEIRD people make up 96% of subjects in behavioural science. 68% of those subjects are American, and the majority of these are among US college students, who usually form a convenient supply of subjects for researchers. The behaviour of this group is then used to inform theories and systems that will be applied worldwide to very different populations.
A flawed approach
To use just one example of that weirdness, it’s been shown time and again that American subjects disproportionately prize choice and individualism. This inevitably affects their worldview and how they make decisions about everything from which brands to favour to what gives credibility to an eCommerce site.
This group displays visual peculiarities too. American test subjects often struggle to overcome optical illusions more than subjects from other backgrounds. It’s hard to believe this wouldn’t inform how they interact with visual design.
Trying to apply WEIRD-based research in all global markets is a flawed approach because WEIRD subjects are considered to be unusual compared with the rest of their species. They show that difference across a variety of areas, which include visual perception and spatial reasoning, categorisation and inferential induction.
Habitants of the WEIRD world have a unique sense of fairness and cooperation compared to the rest of the world, show their own peculiar approaches to reasoning, and have a concept of the self and a set of related motivations that arguably set them apart.
Most of them will be English speakers as a first language or come from a related language group, which introduces language based cultural bias into the mix.
Westernised, educated people from industrialised, rich democracies dominate research for a variety of reasons. Although research may be trying to determine human universals – how buying behaviour can be influenced by marketing approaches, for instance – drawing on such as narrow sample of humankind inevitably adds bias to research.
Many of the world’s leading research institutions are found in westernised parts of the world, and as a result research activity tends to be most intensive here. Key findings have emerged from universities in the US, UK and Western Europe, and have been transmitted worldwide. It shows a lack of regard for cultural context to assume that the same results will apply elsewhere.
Collaborating with researchers in other countries might be one way to obtain more watertight findings. That’s more complex and more expensive from a research perspective, but the benefits may make it worthwhile. In an increasingly globalised world, it’s valuable to get globalised answers.
Conducting research on more varied populations could be extremely insightful. It could be harder to get clear answers if cultural context affects results, but the answers that are obtained are likely to apply further than the boundaries of the WEIRD world.
For brands that are spending large sums on ventures in new markets, basing their activities on WEIRD research could be a flawed approach. Research that looks at a wider sample of the world population could be much more helpful at guiding their decision making. That’s why brands should be wary of research that’s based on monocultural subjects if they’re seeking to apply the findings in other markets.
Designing outside WEIRD
When it comes to designing digital services and products, the key to success lies in user testing. Many design concepts originated or gained popularity from research using WEIRD subjects – that includes concepts such as using tabbed navigation and skeuomorphism.
Designers shouldn’t just assume the same approach will be as successful outside WEIRD populations. It’s essential to test digital products and services with their intended audience and find true representatives of the end user group for that testing.
Brands that are testing new markets inevitably want firm answers and reliable research findings. Our present reliance on research based on highly unusual population samples could be undermining our ability to get those reliable answers.
Research institutions need to seek wider research samples – but it’s also important to use local testing to question assumptions based on any research topic. The world is much bigger than the WEIRD sample group, and brands need to factor in for cultural context in any market they engage in.