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Psychology's WEIRD History

A critical evaluation of psychology’s WEIRD history and an analysis of its implications for our understanding of the discipline today

[This is part of an essay I wrote for a master degree in Psychology at the University of Roehampton]

The acronym WEIRD (Henrich et al., 2010) refers to Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic societies or individuals. The term is used here to highlight biases in psychology research.

From a historical perspective, psychology has its roots in philosophy and social science, and it established itself as a separate discipline in Germany in the late 19th century. This means that the discipline was founded by white, educated European men.

My task here is to give voice to a non-WEIRD researcher and to look at their contribution to the wider field of psychology. This includes all members of under-represented communities and minorities.

It is interesting to notice that the first example of a non-WEIRD psychological research that came to my mind was Mary Answorth (1913-1999) and her work on attachment patterns in Uganda (1967). Although Answorth’s work is significant for the inclusion of women in research, I would prefer to focus on someone who was even less represented. Inspired by a lecture on intelligence testing, I came across the work of Herman George Canady (1901-1970).

Canady was an African-American clinical and social psychologist who examined the role of the examiner in intelligence testing. He investigated unconscious biases in intelligence testing regarding race and gender.

His most influential work focuses on the effect of ‘rapport’ between the examiner and the child examined (1936). This research investigates white researchers testing black children. Due to the historical and social context of America in the 1930s, this research was innovative and avant-garde. Canady highlights his discontent with the lack of psychological research focused on black experience. He also explores the obstacles and discrimination that the black youth faced at the time (Canady, 1942). His work opened the debate on the topic and many papers were published since, until the term ‘unconscious bias’ was first introduced (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995).

The topic of Canady’s research introduces the need for more inclusion and the need for psychology to incorporate more non-WEIRD researchers and participants.

If psychological research is WEIRD, this implies that it relies on a narrow section of the population. If both researchers and participants are recruited amongst the elites, then entire sections of the population are left underrepresented.

The underrepresentation carries two main consequences. First, research with such premises is not inclusive, which might need to be reviewed on ethical terms (British Psychological Society, 2021a). Second, if part of the human population is not included, the research is not representative of the whole human experience. It is not capturing the whole spectrum of human complexity. By including variety in research, the results become more significant because they are drawn from a wider sample.

If these are the implications for research, we can also start to reflect on what the impact is on the discipline as a whole. If the results are not taken from a fair sample, how can they be applied to the whole population? The bias introduced by research could produce a skewed perception of who does psychology and what psychology does.

Underrepresenting minorities could then lead to gaps in knowledge. If research is only conducted on WEIRD countries by WEIRD researchers, there must be a risk that the findings are not universally applicable and therefore not generalisable. If a psychological construct or phenomenon is not generalisable, it cannot be fully understood. In order for psychology to be valid for everyone, it needs to include minorities.

It is interesting to think about diversity in terms of subjectivity, because it brings innovation and allows us to look at things from different perspectives. As humans we all have a subjective experience of the world, so if psychology as a science wants to study the human experience, then it needs to take subjectivity into account. This means to look at both the general and the specific of the human experience.

We are then left with the questions: how can we access the missing voices and make them heard? How do we decolonise psychology? How can we make psychology findings more universally applicable?

In my opinion, to decolonise psychology as a discipline, there are two immediate steps that can be taken:

First, doing research with a wider pool of participants tracking information about culture and diversity, which, in my experience, is often omitted. Second, psychology could diversify who is studied making the recruitment process for participants more explicit and encouraging diversity. This is also encouraged by the British Psychological Society’s guidelines for research (2021b).

Psychology as a profession needs to be open and accessible to a wider range of students. This might include measures such as: positive discrimination, implementation of EDI policies and more inclusive advertisement.

Another way to look at this would be to think about post-racism (Genis, 2014), in the sense of actively looking for diversity and accumulating information on the specificity of experiences. In terms of research, this would mean developing a culturally informed practice, where information on race and diversity is gathered, stored and investigated appropriately. This might mean to look at who is studied, what is studied and who gets to do the study. It would be interesting to conduct a meta-research on psychological papers, looking at cultural lenses, to highlight how we look at the world when we do research, focussing on race and diversity.

To conclude, if we want to understand variability of the human experience, we need to include variability in research. Ignoring diversity in psychological research is ignoring an essential bit of information. This is not just problematic because it is biased, but also because it does not reflect the continually changing and diverse human society.


Ainsworth, M. (1967). Infancy in Uganda. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

British Psychological Society (2021a). Code of Ethics and Conducts. [Online] Leicester: The British Psychological Society.

British Psychological Society (2021b). Code of Human Research Ethics. [Online] Leicester: The British Psychological Society.

Canady, H. G. (1942). The American cast system and the question of negro intelligence. The Journal of Educational Psychology, 2(2), 161-172.

Canady, H. G. (1936). The effect of ‘rapport’ on the I.Q.: A new approach to the problem of racial psychology. Journal of Negro Education, 5, 209-219.

Gines, K. (2014). A critic of postracialism: Conserving race and complicating blackness beyond the black-white binary. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 11(1), 75-86.

Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological Review, 102(1), 4-27.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2–3), 61–83.