Health / Medicine / Psychology / Science

WEIRD science

Why psych (and medicine in general) are WEIRD

WEIRD? That’s right. “WEIRD” is an acronym used by some psychologists. It stands for “White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic” and refers to the fact that the recruits for psych studies often come from exactly that demographic. Why’s that important? Because our environment shapes us in many ways, both obvious and not — and that means it shapes our responses to psychology experiments. For example, if you were looking at the psychology of response to authority, a white person in the USA might have significantly less fear of police than a black person. (I’m not touching, here, on whether that’s justified or not.) Likewise, level of education might have quite a large effect on people’s willingness to accept vaccines. Even if psychology tries to tell us that WEIRD people can be convinced to accept a vaccine with a brief pamphlet explaining the science, less educated people might need much more in-depth explanations — or a different approach altogether.

It’s not just psychology that’s plagued by WEIRD people. In medicine, for example, it’s quite typical for a new drug to be tested primarily on men of a certain ethnicity — and yet we know that the variations in how people respond to drugs are almost endless. Getting a range of genotypes is probably the best way to ensure a drug works for the majority of people, and that could be achieved by enrolling people of more diverse backgrounds.

There’s even some evidence suggesting that the popular painkiller ibuprofen simply doesn’t work for women during certain parts of the menstrual cycle. Ibruprofen is prescribed for all sorts of things, including pain relating to menstruation! This wasn’t known before, because drug companies simply don’t routinely test drugs on women, and particularly not on women of childbearing age.

You probably already know about one of the big scandals in medicine: thalidomide. It was prescribed for morning sickness, and if it was taken at a certain point in pregnancy, it actually caused horrific birth defects. Many of the babies died, and others were born with all kinds of problems from brain damage to lacking limbs. How could this happen? Because thalidomide was never tested on pregnant women before being prescribed to them.

It seems obvious, but the fact is, the same goes for most drugs. We don’t know exactly what effects they will have on the majority of people — only how they will affect the WEIRD men.

It might be ideal if we could develop specific drugs for specific groups of people, but drug development is expensive, and companies need to be sure of making a profit. So at least for the foreseeable future, drugs are going to be targeted to the broadest possible groups — or they should be.

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