What is HBES Doing About the WEIRD Problem?

By HBES Executive Council Members, Chris von Rueden & Coren Apicella


Evolution and Human Behavior (EHB) just released its September issue, which is devoted to highlighting ongoing research in the evolutionary social sciences that expands beyond WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) populations. This special issue, titled “Beyond WEIRD, a decade later: Population diversity in the evolutionary study of human behavior,” was edited by Coren Apicella, Ara Norenzayan, and Joseph Henrich and features articles on topics including evolutionary medicine, cooperation, leadership, morality, and developmental psychology.


This special issue reflects the broader commitment of HBES to diversity in research. When Debra Lieberman in 2018 became Editor-in-Chief of EHB (HBES’ flagship journal), one of her primary objectives was to organize a special issue on this topic, which she described as “highly desirable and well overdue.” Recently, in consultation with the journal’s editorial board, she has instituted policies to prevent “generic sample descriptions”. In his contribution to the special issue, H. Clark Barrett contends that researchers who use generic sample descriptions are implying, consciously or not, that “cultural identities do not matter for the conclusions being drawn”.


Now, authors who submit to the journal are required to fully describe their samples. For instance, authors are now asked to specify the geographic location from which their sample was drawn, how their data was collected (online or in-person), and any theoretically-relevant characteristics pertinent to the research study, such as religion affiliation, race/ethnicity, and gender identity (inclusive of non-binary options). And importantly, authors must also specify the source of the sample in their Abstract. Manuscripts that do not adequately describe samples will be returned to authors for revision prior to consideration.


Although EHB may fare better on inclusion of less WEIRD samples than many mainstream journals, particularly in psychology, there is still much more work to be done. In his contribution to the issue, H. Clark Barrett provides a bibliometric analysis of all 300 articles published in EHB in the last five years to assess “empirical representativeness.” This exercise revealed how contributions to EHB tend to be based on research with college students in the US, Europe, and East Asia or alternatively, with small-scale societies. This finding suggests that a broad swath of humanity remains under-represented. Akin to using college students, Barrett suggests that much cross-cultural research also relies on convenience sampling where the only justification provided is “this has never been studied in non-WEIRD people.”


This leads to another important concern raised in the special issue – the dichotomizing of WEIRD and non-WEIRD populations. In the introductory article for the special issue, Apicella, Norenzayan, and Henrich caution researchers against using WEIRD as a dichotomous construct. Such dichotomies, they argue, ignore the substantial variation that exists within and between populations. Paradoxically, perhaps, Apicella, Norenzayan, and Henrich note that the WEIRD acronym was chosen in part to de-exoticize less WEIRD populations. The acronym was meant to highlight the peculiarities of more WEIRD populations, that, in a global view, stand out.


This dichotomy also increases the likelihood that readers (and occasionally researchers) will fall back on inaccurate and harmful stereotypes when describing less WEIRD populations. We should avoid exoticizing less WEIRD populations in our own research, and we should avoid promoting research and popular articles that do so. Mistakes do happen though, even by the most well-meaning among us. For instance, an article that romanticized the Hadza people was shared recently on Twitter by HBES. The article was removed after several anthropologists and Shani Mangola, a Hadzabe activist and lawyer, highlighted its problems. As members of HBES, it is important that we continue to educate ourselves about these issues and halt the perpetual stereotyping of less WEIRD populations that has historically existed in cross-cultural research.


Moving forward, Barrett and Apicella, Norenzayan, and Henrich, and other contributors to the EHB September issue call for a more thoughtful and systematic pairing of research questions with the particular characteristics of different research populations. Other evolutionary social scientists have voiced similar sentiments. For a more in-depth discussion, see Broesch, Crittenden, et al. and contributors to a PNAS colloquium on psychological and behavioral diversity. These authors not only address selection of research populations, but also describe the shortcomings of cross-cultural comparisons when researchers do not consider culturally appropriate tests and protocols.


Perhaps of the utmost urgency is a greater consideration of the ethics of conducting cross-cultural research. Better communication with and involvement of research communities during study design, particularly those communities who historically have been marginalized, should be prioritized.


The September EHB issue, “Beyond WEIRD, A Decade Later: Population Diversity in the Evolutionary Study of Human Behavior,” offers some criticisms, but its contributors are also optimistic about the future of evolutionary social science. We agree that the methods and theory will only get better, and that is in part because of the disciplinary diversity of our community. In particular, the dialogue between anthropologists and psychologists has been, and we hope will continue to be, an engine at the heart of the creativity and productivity of HBES.


For those who are interested in hearing more about these topics, please tune in to HBES’ inaugural virtual roundtable discussion. This roundtable discussion, held on October 29, will focus on cross-cultural research in evolutionary science. Panelists include Brooke Scelza (UCLA), Dorsa Amir (Boston College), H. Clark Barrett (UCLA), and Joseph Henrich (Harvard). The discussion will be moderated by Coren Apicella (UPenn). Information on registration is forthcoming.


If you are interested in submitting a commentary related to the Beyond WEIRD special issue, please submit a 500-word proposal to Debra Lieberman (debra@miami.edu) by November 1, 2020. You will be notified by November 15 if your proposal is accepted. Completed commentaries will be due by December 15. Instructions for commentaries will be provided upon proposal acceptance. Please consult the special issue for detailed instructions.


— Chris & Coren