When Cristine Legare gives talks to groups of psychology researchers, she likes to take a quick poll of the room. How many of them, she asks, consider themselves to be “Western ethnopsychologists?” The question does not go over well. “They’re like, ‘What?’” says Legare, a developmental psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “It doesn’t resonate at all.”
That confusion is precisely Legare’s point. For decades, the overwhelming majority of psychology research has examined people who live in the United States and other affluent Western countries. By focusing on such a narrow population, Legare and other critics argue, psychology researchers have—mostly unwittingly—presented a skewed view of the human mind.
“It’s not that it’s not interesting or useful to study your American, middle-class population. But they don’t want to claim they’re just studying that population,” Legare says. “They want to claim that humans are alike enough that it really doesn’t matter which population you study.” Many psychology papers do not even mention the nationality, socioeconomic status, or other basic demographic statistics of their subject populations.
In many cases, other research suggests, the population being studied does matter—often in subtle and profound ways—and Legare is not the first researcher to voice these concerns. Debates about the diversity of psychology subjects reached a peak around 2010, when a widely read paper charged that an overreliance on research from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies—often shortened to the acronym “WEIRD”—amounted to a crisis for the behavioral sciences. At the time, it seemed possible that the field would undergo major reforms.