Thursday, May 9, 2013

Are College Students WEIRD?

Unless you are still in the flower of your youth, you probably think that college students are weird.

Now, psychologists have decided that the word should also be an acronym, standing, as Bethany Brookshire explains for:  “Western, educated, and from industrialized, rich, and democratic countries.”

The acronym was necessitated by the fact that a goodly amount of psychological research, the kind that is conducted in college laboratories, limits its sampling to a population of people that is basically WEIRD.

But does this WEIRD group really represent humanity? That, Brookshire says, is the question:

WEIRD subjects (perhaps you were one?) are still human, of course, so you might think that what’s generalizable to them must be generalizable to the rest of humanity.

Graciously, Brookshire accepts that WEIRD college students are human beings, but that does not make them typically human. While there are certainly enough similarities between WEIRD college students and human beings, there are also some significant differences.

The differences are both natural and cultural. Since the adolescent brain is not fully developed, the results obtained from studying college students will have a limited application to adults.

And then, there’s the influence of manners, mores and the culture. No one believes that culture is everything, but culture does count for something.

Brookshire offers some examples:

WEIRD subjects, from countries that represent only about 12 percent of the world’s population, differ from other populations in moral decision making, reasoning style, fairness, even things like visual perception. This is because a lot of these behaviors and perceptions are based on the environments and contexts in which we grew up. There’s a big dose of sociology in our psychology. For example, WEIRD people are better at optical illusions involving line length, possibly because our environments contain a lot of straight lines in things like buildings.

We have other reasons to doubt research performed on WEIRD subjects. Brookshire explains that the group of students is often self-selected; it does not really care about the study and it is more likely to tell researchers what they want to hear.

One suspects that many researchers are conducting these studies in order to cloak their cultural agenda in science.

Among the more bizarre studies is this one, reported by Brookshire:

How did you lose your virginity? Maybe it was in a romantic garden under a full moon with the scent of roses all around, in the arms of your one true love? Maybe it was at the drunken party after prom night, with your underwear around your ankles, hoping no one could see you to take pictures? Maybe it was on your wedding night, maybe it was long before. Maybe it was even long after. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed it, because a recent study has shown that your sexual well-being today has a lot to do with how much you enjoyed it then.

Obviously, it’s an idiot question in the first place, but the sex life of college students is infinitely fascinating to post grads.

To conduct their research, the scientists set out to produce a perfectly homogeneous group of subjects:

When recruiting for many of these WEIRD studies, scientists often make the sample as homogeneous as possible, in an effort to detect small differences. Take the virginity study I mentioned above. The researchers eliminated from the sample anyone whose first exposure to sex involved “physical force” (that is, anyone who had been raped). This eliminated a small number (12 out of 331 participants). And they eliminated anyone who did not have heterosexual intercourse. The sample is so homogeneous that it applies only to heterosexual college students—who on average, according to information they supplied to the researchers, had lost their virginity only two years before.

But, if you limit the study to students who resemble each other, why would the research not be what scientists call anecdotal?

And then, on what scientific grounds can you predict a lifetime of sexual experience from the accounts of college students who have had very little sexual experience and who have never been married?

How did the researchers collect their data? Brookshire explains:

In the case of the virginity study, subjects kept an “intimate relations” diary for two weeks. Out of about 300 participants, the researchers got records of a total of 639 intimate encounters, about two per person. From these two intimate encounters per person, in college students who had lost their virginity on average two years before, the authors concluded that sexual satisfaction in the present was strongly affected by how you lost your virginity and that the effects of how you lost your virginity could persist for years to come.

But then, she adds, the results are based on what the students are willing to divulge and on their own subjective impression of their own sexual experiences:

… self-report studies are always open to things like exaggeration or covering up, especially when it comes to studies about sex, where a lot of cultural pressure comes into play.

It is not just that these studies are limited to WEIRD college students. One suspects that it does not even provide an accurate assessment of college student behavior. One starts thinking that these researchers are committing scientific fraud.

As for the prediction about the future sex life of these students, it is good to recall what Wittgenstein once said: there is no such thing as a fact about tomorrow.


David Foster said...

"that sexual satisfaction in the present was strongly affected by how you lost your virginity and that the effects of how you lost your virginity could persist for years to come."

Why is it so difficult for people to understand the intertwining of *correlation* and *causation*?

It's quite possible, for example, that heavy drinkers tend to lose their virginity in degrading and unsatisfying ways...and that their later sexual experiences are also unsatisfying. Maybe instead of the bad virginity-loss experience causing the later problems, the heavy drinking caused both.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point. If they were really scientists, they would understand.