Psychology is weirder than you thought

When many people think of psychology, there is an immediate mental image of a client on a couch and a therapist with a hovering speech bubble asking, “and how do you feel about that?” Numerous studies over the years, have examined misconceptions of psychology. One such misconception is that psychology is not a science. After all, as humans, we tend to gain confidence in our abilities to understand and predict the behaviour and mental states of others – simply based on our lived experience. And fair enough, but there must be more to it…where does the science come in?

Whether you want to understand treatment effectiveness, why people develop certain fears, or simply why people persist in actions that cause themselves or others pain, there is an experiment, a study, or most likely an entire academic journal, providing insight based on, well, science.

Most definitions of “science” will include the word systematic. That is, it is an ordered system under which researchers operate to formulate scientific laws and theories. Given that science requires evidence and critical exposure to scrutiny, it can be tempting to assume it is unbiased. It would be nice if that were true!

In the case of psychology, some have argued that the discipline has inadvertently presented a skewed view of the human mind. A popular University of British Columbia paper asserted that although a significant portion of the discipline’s trusted research is drawn from Western, Industrialized, Educated, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies, this population represents a “thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity.”

That is, people who grew up in so-called “WEIRD” societies often act, think, and process quite differently than people who grew up in other areas of the world. If you step back from the science lens for a moment and think instead about your personal experience, this is an obvious point.  Whether by watching the news or by engaging with people from different backgrounds, it is apparent that despite our shared humanity, there is significant diversity in behaviour, thinking, and perception.

In fact, some studies have demonstrated how “WEIRD” subjects tend to be outliers on domains such as visual perception, fairness, and cooperation when compared to subjects from other societies. For example, certain optical illusions that tend to fool people from industrialized contexts do not have the same effect on those who grew up in rural, nonindustrialized contexts.

This is not to suggest that the aim should be to pit certain groups against one another. A pertinent word of caution, given a bleak history of some scientists seeking to bolster racist, xenophobic sentiments by positing differences between groups that were not backed by evidence. Rather, it is an assertion that research should account for nationality, class, gender, sexuality, race and other identities so that the bulk of psychological insight is not purely derived from a narrow dominant cultural lens.

A 2018 study examined the geographical diversity of samples in research published in three 2017 issues of Psychological Science, a leading academic journal – and the results were staggering. Not a single study sampled people from Africa, the Middle East, or Latin America, and less than 7% sampled people from Asia, leaving the vast majority of those studied from “WEIRD” societies. So, almost 85% of the world’s population comprised less than 7% of the samples in this leading journal. Researchers tend to acknowledge the extent to which their research can be generalized, but the issue is that when the majority of research shares the same lack of generalizability, at some point, those findings when replicated enough, generally become accepted as the norm.

The bottom line is that yes – despite misconceptions, Psychology is a science. But perhaps the greatest misconception of all, is one that is taken for granted, even among many at the top of the field. Psychology is the study of mind and behaviour, but until deliberate steps are taken by the field as a whole, the picture that the discipline paints of the human experience is limited at best and flawed at worst.

Note: This article was produced for our Black and Indigenous print edition from March 2020. The edition was postponed due to COVID-19 and is just being released now.