Many of the articles we all enjoy on Psych Central are reports on the latest psychological research. Chuck and I spend many hours keeping up to date daily by belonging to a comprehensive listserve run by fellow psychologist Ken Pope. He sends out news and opinions from a wide variety of sources. One article that he sent out last week from the June issues of Science was quite fascinating.

The article brought up a concern that many of us are vaguely aware of but don’t really spend too much time thinking about. The problem is simply who are the people being studied in all of those psychological research studies? How do the studies recruit and retain people to participate in the research? And are the conclusions that the studies make generalizable to the rest of the world?

Research psychologists often find willing participants in college psychology classrooms (some students are given a bit of incentive by receiving extra credit for their participation). Authors Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan from the University of British Columbia call these research subjects “WEIRDos.” WEIRDOS!??!! We should be concerned. If all of these studies are conducted on a bunch of weirdos, then do the results really say anything about the rest of us?

First, just exactly who are these weirdos? According to the authors, they are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (in other words, college students). What’s especially troubling is that about 95% of all research subjects have been these so-called weirdos up until now.

What’s wrong with studying college students? Overall, college samples are very unlike the real world. These samples largely ignore cultural and economic differences. Yet these differences affect the way people think about such varied topics like cooperation, competition, self-views, shyness, motivation and more. So, next time you read an article about a new psychological finding, take the time to see if the study subjects were weirdos! Take care and be careful.