Red VW Bug

Courtesy ruffin_ready.

“Sorry, lift your shirt a little higher.”

I’m grasping the side of my sweater, pulling it up to my ribcage as the researcher sticks an electrode the size of a ping pong ball on my chest.  I already have wires coming out of two places on my collarbone and the index and middle finger of my left hand.

I think about making a joke about The Matrix.

I don’t.

“Let me just lead you to the car, here,” the researcher says, guiding me across the floor by my wiring.

The car is a shiny red Volkswagon Beetle, circa 2002, complete with retro flower holder molded to the dashboard.  It belongs to MIT’s AgeLab, located on the second floor of a building in one of the more non-descript areas of campus.  I’m at the lab to complete a 90-minute experiment about driving. And maybe concentration. It’s hard to say.

This endeavor is one of many brain/psychology-related studies I’ve completed since I went to college and discovered people will pay to watch you complete mundane tasks like allocating digital sheep on a computer-generated farm or memorizing long sets of random numbers1.

As a passive rebel, I often attempt to figure out what the point of the study is I’m participating in.  Not because I want to fudge the results per se, but because there is something deviously satisfying about making statistical significance a little more difficult.

But that’s not the only problem with people like me. It’s also that I’m weird.  I mean, WEIRD.

Western – Educated – Industrial – Rich – Democratic

I live in the United States. I grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class suburb with two nature-loving, nerdy parents.  I attended a small, private, liberal arts college. I voted in the last election, I’m not afraid to buy the occasional watermelon at Whole Foods, and until recently, was a die-hard subscriber to the daily newspaper.

Minneapolis Skyline

Courtesy IrishFireside.

This isn’t to say it’s bad – it’s just specific. I’m a specific subset of the U.S. population. Whatever data has come from me, or from people like me, isn’t necessarily attributable to anyone else.  However many dollars I agree to lend you or hidden objects I find in the picture or anagrams I can finish in thirty seconds don’t really mean squat for the guy living in a mud hut in the rainforest with his cows.

The Pacific Standard wrote a story on this and it’s not a new topic by any means.

But I’d argue just because these studies use people like me doesn’t mean they’re poorly executed.  They act as springboards for a skeptical discussion – leading to papers like this that take a finding from an innocent, GPA-fearing undergraduate, and test it on a non-WEIRD population.

The original paper that thrust forth this theory, published in 2010, listed some striking differences between WEIRD and non-WEIRD populations.  (Late night reading, anyone?  There’s something irresistible about a solid takedown of sampling methodology.)  Some of the more intriguing finds:

Couresty hi_ro_43.

Couresty hi_ro_43.

→ The basic-level folkbiological categories for WEIRD adults are life-form categories … for example, if one says “What’s that?” (pointing at a maple tree), their common answer is “tree.” However, in all small-scale societies studied, the generic species (e.g., maple, crow, trout, and fox) is the basic-level category …

→ Speakers of English … favor the use of an egocentric (relative) system to represent the location of objects – that is, relative to the self (e.g., “the man is on the right side of the flagpole”). In contrast, many if not most languages favor an allocentric frame … in which absolute reference is based on cardinal directions (“the man is west of the house”).

→ People from Western populations are far more likely to understand their selves in terms of … their personality traits and attitudes, and are less likely to understand them in terms of roles and relationships.

And it only gets more complicated from there.  There’s also “American Exceptionalism,” which is to say, even among WEIRD populations, Americans are still unique.  Our country tis of thee.

Americans were found to be the most patriotic, litigious, philanthropic, and populist … In contrast to other large Western industrialized societies, the United States had the highest crime rate, the longest working hours, the highest divorce rate, the highest rate of volunteerism…

Etc., etc., etc.  However, the authors go on to say that hey, if you just want to know if something even exists for humans?  Like it’s even possible?  Then any slice of humanity will do.  Even WEIRD people.

Courtesy Cait Sith.

Courtesy Cait Sith.

But in true takedown fashion, the paper ends on a pessimistic note which, both as a person who likes psychology and as a study-volunteer-extraordinaire, I enjoy quite a bit:

[The WEIRD] may represent the worst population on which to base our understanding of Homo sapiens.

Hello, dark conclusion.

When I get out of the VW Beetle and start pulling off my gel patches, I ask the researcher how it went.  He just nods and smiles, fine, fine.

I think about telling him, I represent the worst of my species, but it sounds a bit harsh.  I’ve only known the guy for 90 minutes.

Plus, not that I can really tell with these things, but I think I did pretty well.

1. The grand prize for Strangest goes to the experiment where I was asked to write about my self-esteem while a researcher, whom I incorrectly assumed was just another study participant, dropped a pencil, complimented my shirt, and left me to bask in the faux-glow of being fashion-enabled.  Turns out?  In women, these compliments backfire.  Suddenly we’re thinking about what our shirt looks like, instead of being happy that we’re attractive.


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