Friday, 20 March 2015

The neglected 95%

"The vast majority of [American] psychologists and their students have extremely limited knowledge concerning the work of their international counterparts. In contrast to other disciplines, psychology is a rather provincial discipline dominated by the United States.”
Denmark (1998)

Psychology, the study of human behaviour, cognition, development, and relationships, produces research findings that usually - at least implicitly - apply to the entire human population. Hence, results are often regarded as representative and are generalised. According to Arnett's analysis of articles published in six premier APA (American Psychological Assocation) journals, however, US-American psychology is not based on "diverse sectors of the human population" but on a small sector, i.e. primarily people living in the US. On a global scale, concentrating on US-Americans means focusing on about 5% of the world's population and neglecting the other 95% (Arnett, 2008).

Henrich et al. come to similar conclusions and say that research findings about human behaviour are often based on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) samples – usually US-American undergraduates "who form the bulk of the database" in behavioural sciences. According to an analysis of top journals (2003-2007), 96% of the subjects are from Western industrialised countries, 68% come from the US, 99% of first authors are at Western universities, 73% at US-American universities. In other words, 96% of psychological samples come from countries with 12% of the world’s population. Interpretations, however, are not confined to these populations. WEIRD people are regarded as "standard subjects", as prototypes that are representative of other populations allowing generalisations.

Henrich et al. argue that it is WEIRD people in particular, who are rather unusual compared with others and call them part of "the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans" and a "thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity". The domains the authors reviewed include self-concepts, fairness, cooperation, reasoning styles (analytic vs. holistic), moral reasoning, categorisation, inferential induction, spatial reasoning, the heritability of IQ, and visual perception. Visual perception, for instance, was compared on the basis of the Müller-Lyer illusion. Different populations showed different results, US-American undergraduates anchored an extreme end of the distribution while others were unaffected by the illusion (which in fact was no illusion to them).

Malick Sidibé is a Malian photographer, probably the country's most celebrated one and recipient of the Hasselblad Award, the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale and the ICP award for lifetime achievement (via). In 1960, Mali gained independence, two years later he launched "Studio Malick". His photographs were taken at a "key moment in West African history". Sidibé photographed his people with their new watches, handbags or socks from French prestigious labels; he captured the transformation into post-colonial Bamako. His photographs also captured Bamako's nightlife. This step towards documentary work was a big one since West African photography had until then been the domain of Europeans (via).
"If Malick Sidibé's images emanate so much power, it is because beyond the convivial and careless atmosphere he also illustrates the difficulty of having to adapt to life in the city. The confrontation with unemployment and alcohol, the irresistible desire to be like young whites. The pictures reflect the artist: convivial, intimate and yet not voyeuristic, they tell of a great complicity between the artist and his subjects. Like that other photographer Keita, Sidibé too has had to wait until the nineties to get recognition outside his own country." (via)

The second part of this posting (on WEIRD) was originally posted on Science on Google+ on 13 December 2014

- Arnett, J. J. (2008) The Neglected 95%. Why American Psychology Needs to Become Less American. American Psychologist, 63(7), 602-614
- Henrich, J., Heine, S. J. & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61-135
- photographs by Malick Sidibé via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via and via