Developmental Psychology’s Weird Problem

May 15, 2016 – 03:08 am

Child plays with 0 bills.Living in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past few years, I’ve gotten used to lots of things that would probably seem strange in other cities. Commuting on a unicycle? Sure. Rampant midday nudity? Everywhere. Vegan dinner fundraiser for your Burning Man art car? Of course. So I hardly bat an eye when a 4-year-old says, “My favorite food is edamame.”

As a developmental psychologist, I test children to learn basic facts about kids, such as how they learn language, navigate social interactions, and gain knowledge. These things seem like they should work about the same way for any young human. But there is growing evidence that the timing and efficiency with which children learn these general skills vary a lot based on experience. A huge amount of a child’s early life experience is determined by the family’s socioeconomic status—how wealthy and educated the child’s parents are. The edamame-loving professors’ kids I’ve been testing are unlikely to be representative of an average child, or even an average American child.

There’s a term to describe the types of people who participate in most social science studies: WEIRD. They are weird in the sense that they are unusual compared with most of the world’s population, but WEIRD is also an acronym describing the white, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic culture they come from. A trio of psychology professors coined this term in a 2010 paper, pointing out that fields studying human behavior often use participants who are “Western, and more specifically American, undergraduates.”

The WEIRD issue has been talked about in psychology for many years, but there’s been little progress in addressing it. The problem is arguably even worse in developmental psychology than in other subfields. While many social science researchers recruit participants from a pool of hundreds of undergrads who must complete studies for course credit, there are no comparably large pools of children to test.

While other children play “House” or “Doctor, ” these kids have been known to play a game called “Research.”

My lab mates and I recruit kids by sending mass mailings to addresses we get from state birth records, and interested parents call, email, or sign up online for an appointment. We also get a good number of participants who are friends of previous participants. Parents visit our lab at the University of California at Berkeley campus during the workweek. We don’t keep demographic records about our participants or their families, but a lot of cues suggest they’re WEIRD: their cars, iPads, fancy strollers, clothes, and the parents’ small talk about their education (“Oh, I went to Berkeley for undergrad!”). People who have the time and job flexibility to bring their kids to a lab in the middle of the workday tend to be fairly well off.


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