Power and the unWEIRDification of behavioural science

We need to make behavioural science less WEIRD.

Despite only representing a small minority of the global population, most people who participate in behavioural science studies are from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) backgrounds. These studies lead to an understanding of human psychology and behaviour specific to these 'weird' research subjects that does not represent the diversity of human experience.

So how do we do the important work of widening participation in behavioural science? In a talk at the Intellectual Forum, lawyer and behavioural science and development consultant Catherine Angai was in conversation with IF Visiting Scholar Bridget Gildea to consider this question. 

Both Bridget and Catherine emphasised the importance of context in understanding human behaviour, and how easy it is to misunderstand even those countries that feel familiar. "What I find really fascinating about this having worked a lot in the States and in the UK is even between those two countries, which are ostensibly similar countries, there’s often a complete misunderstanding of each other’s contexts", said Bridget, who works at the nexus between technology, behavioural insights (BI) and public policy as the founder of the Curiosity Incubator | Accelerator for Good. "What does that mean when we approach countries and contexts that are so radically different?" 

Bridget and Catherine turned this question to the audience, encouraging attendees to consider how research could better take into account diverse cultural contexts in order to begin the 'unWEIRDification' of behavioural science. In-person audience members suggested that unWEIRDification needs to include elements of cultural storytelling and that there needs to be diversity in the authors of behavioural science studies. Online audience members, who joined from as far away as Nigeria, Hawaii, Guinea, and Romania, similarly suggested that diversity in who is funded to do behavioural science research could be just as important to unWEIRDification as achieving diversity in study participants. 

But, as Catherine pointed out, implementing unWEIRDification strategies looks different to people from different backgrounds and contexts. "There are different ways to look at unWEIRDification depending on where you sit and how you’re thinking about the question and what it means", she said, explaining that unWEIRDification is perceived differently by researchers from the Global North than by those in the Global South. While researchers from WEIRD backgrounds focus on making findings more generalisable by expanding geographic and cultural diversity samples, she said, researchers from the Global South emphasise addressing the power imbalance between themselves and their foreign partners, asking for equal partnership and resources, that research should not be extractive, and that researchers get to know participants and their cultural contexts. 

As a Nigerian researcher and behavioural science practitioner herself, Catherine is continuing to ask questions to try to address the power imbalance in the field. "I’ve asked the international experts: Given the context, did you have to use this approach?" Catherine said. "You have an approach that you already designed, but does that approach fit into every context? Are there other ways you can think of doing this differently?"

Watch the event recording on YouTube.