Tuesday, November 09, 2021

WEIRD But Not Necessarily Useful Research



I am of Danish and English heritage, with some Irish and French mixed in for good measure. I know the most about my Danish background in that my grandmother immigrated to the US as a child and was therefore a bit more connected to her roots than a lot of White Americans. I also know that my English ancestors immigrated to these shores in the late 1800's, then proceeded to the Midwest where they were farmers. I was baptized and confirmed Lutheran; I own a beer glass commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I am a natural born citizen of the United States.

To be honest, that's pretty much it for my national, ethnic and religious cultural markers. I rarely refer to them when describing myself. This makes me WEIRD, which is an acronym coined by a trio of Canadian psychologists: Western Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic. 

Most people are not WEIRD. They do not live in the West. They are not highly educated. They do not lived in an industrialized or democratic nation. And while I do not feel particularly rich, compared to most people in the world, I am. Not only are most people not WEIRD, but they never have been.

Even within my own country, most people are not WEIRD.

Being WEIRD means that I, and people like me, see the world much differently that most people. For one thing, we don't know or care all that much about our national, ethnic, racial, or religious backgrounds, instead perceiving ourselves as autonomous individuals free to create our own identities regardless of our backgrounds. In contrast, most people around the world and throughout time have more often viewed themselves as woven into the cultural background and social roles into which they were born. Indeed, while us WEIRD-os conceive of the self as something we create from the inside-out, most people see it as something that is forged from the outside-in.

That concept really comes through for me when I interact with educators from indigenous backgrounds. I find my mind expanding, sometimes painfully, as I listen to them talk about interconnectedness and the importance of honoring ancestors, "past, present, and future" or when they talk about honoring Mother Nature. It's clear that for these people who have learned how to thrive on both sides of the WEIRD divide being Maori or Ojibwe or Aboriginal is central to their identity. This is where they "come from." Within my own country Black and Hispanic adults feel significantly more connected to their roots than do White adults. According to the Pew Research Center, only 36 percent of White Americans saying they feel a "strong connection" to the cultural origin of their family, while 61 percent of Black adults and 71 percent of Hispanic adults feel this way. Over half of Black and Hispanic people surveyed likewise see their origin as central to their identity, whereas fewer than one in four White people do.

Why am I sharing this here on a blog about "teaching and learning from preschoolers"? Because much of what we think we know about human psychology comes from research conducted on WEIRD people, and specifically US college students who participate for class credit. As educators, we tend to rely on psychological studies to shape our approach to children, but since WEIRD folks only comprise about 12 percent of the global population we are missing data on the other 88 percent who tend to view themselves as being created from the outside-in. This greatly impacts such things as moral decision-making, reasoning style, sense of fairness, and even visual perception. In other words, what we take for psychological orthodoxy is really just a deep dive into a narrow, WEIRD, segment of the world's population which is then crudely applied to the rest of humanity.

No where am I more aware of this flaw in our psychological research than when I'm trying to convince a fellow WEIRD-o that children consistently demonstrate, unprompted, traits of kindness, selflessness, fairness, and connectedness. They are so entrenched in their inside-out WEIRD-ness that they simply cannot conceive of humans who are not naturally selfish, covetous, and wildly independent, so they assure me that my approach to young children is doomed to result in some sort of Lord of the Flies or "law of the jungle" scenario. Then they point to "research" that they claim supports their WEIRD view of human nature.

For years now, I've been viewing psychological research through squinted eyes, especially when it doesn't jibe with what I have observed through my own decades of working with developing humans who are not yet fully WEIRD. Specifically, I seek out the make-up of the test subjects. This usually means I have to go beyond the mass media reporting, which nearly always leaves out that vital piece of information. And what I usually discover is that I've just learned something that is perhaps true for a narrow, WEIRD, slice of the population, but not necessarily useful when it comes to understanding how the rest of the world ticks. 

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"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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