The Ethno-Centrism of Psychology

December 30, 2015 § 6 Comments

I’m reading Jared Diamond’s most recent book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?.  Diamond, of course, is best known for his 1999 magnum opus, Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, a magnificent study of what led the Western world to dominance in the past several centuries.  Diamond also kick-started the cottage industry of studies in World History that sought to explain how it was that the World came to dominate, and, in most cases, predicting the West’s eventual downfall.  Some of these were useful reads, such as Ian Morris’ Why The West Rules For Now, and others were, well, not, such as Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest.

At any rate, in his Prologue, Diamond talks about, amongst other things, psychology.  He reports that 96% of psychology articles in major peer-reviewed, academic journals in 2008 were from Western nations: Canada, the US, the countries of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel.  Of those, 68% dealt with Americans.  But it gets better, the vast majority of those were articles based on research where participants were undergraduates in psychology courses.

This is somewhat disconcerting as it means that the vast majority of what we know about human psychology from the academy is based on an ethno-centric, largely Americanized point-of-view.  But, perhaps more damning, the majority of this opus is based on 18-22 year olds at universities across the US.  That means these participants are predominately wealthy (relatively), American, and young.

Interestingly, we also know enough about the human brain and psychology to know that they evolve as we age.  It is also clear from fields as diverse as history, psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc., that people are not all the same across cultures.  In other words, applying what we may know about one issue, based on research on American undergraduates in psychology classes, has absolutely no bearing on elderly German men and women.  Or, for that matter, middle-aged Chinese women.

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