So, you think you know about psychology? Who do you really know about?

Over the course of the last several decades (and even centuries) the field of psychology has brought us many important insights into the human mind and behavior. We have learned about the way that we interact with the people around us, how we perceive our environment, how to help people with clinical symptoms, and so much more. Overall, the field of psychology has dramatically improved our understanding of the way that humans behave and think. But which humans do we really know about?


Psychology studies are generally run on volunteers. These participants agree to volunteer their time to take part in a study either because they are interested, because they will be compensated, or both. Typically, they will come into a research lab or become involved in a study remotely and provide researchers with the data that they use to draw their conclusions. Importantly, this means that these volunteers provide the base for major psychological findings. The majority of what we know in the field of psychology is based on these volunteers. But who are they?


Psychology research participants are often college students, even though they may be a unique group of individuals. That is, college students are a group poised for higher education and typically fall within a relatively narrow age range in early adulthood. So, if college students are such a unique group, why are they so often the individuals who participate in research studies? This tends to be the case because college students are convenient to recruit for such studies. Many psychology research labs are based on college campuses, so college students are already physically close by. Additionally, while many studies pay their participants, some simply cannot afford to do so. In these cases, college students are often given opportunities to receive extra credit in psychology courses for participating, or are genuinely interested in being participants in research studies because of what they have learned or are currently learning in their courses. Due to this combination of interest and convenience, many psychology findings are based on college students as participants.


Even when participants aren’t current college students, they are often people who have graduated from college, or are college-graduate parents bringing their children in to participate in a study. Some parents who bring their children in to participate in research studies also work at the university where the research is conducted, so they hear about the studies more frequently. These people are all more likely to have a continued interest in learning about new psychology findings, or are open to (and capable of) volunteering their time to contribute to new psychology research.


Although research participants are often college students or are primarily college-educated, there are also global concerns to psychology research participation. That is, most psychology research is WEIRD. No, I’m not referring to the mad scientist stereotype. I mean that psychology research participants usually come from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzyan, 2010). In fact, only 12% of people in the world are WEIRD, but 96% of psychology research participants are from WEIRD societies! So, most psychology research has college-educated, WEIRD participants, even though that isn’t representative of the majority of the world.


Why does it matter that psychology research participants are not representative? As a general rule, the purpose of psychology research is to better understand the human mind and behavior. However, by studying such narrow groups of participants (all college students, all WEIRD, etc.), we simply can’t know if the research findings are a universal truth about humans or if they are specific to that group of individuals. Perhaps there is something specific about college students that causes them to respond in a particular way during a study, but non-college students would do something completely different. This could be because non-college students are in a different age group (i.e., older adults rather than young adults), because they haven’t attended college (i.e., have less formal education), or because the specific environment of being on a college campus influences performance on a task. Any one of these factors (or more!) could impact the results, and would suggest that the results may not apply to everyone (e.g., all age groups, levels of education, or work/school environments). Perhaps California-born, White participants tend to behave one way in your study, but a more diverse group of participants from a variety of cultural backgrounds would behave differently. Without having a diverse group of participants, we don’t know who the results might extend to (Simons, Shoda, & Lindsay, 2017), and we can’t say how globally representative the results might be (Rad, Martingano, & Ginges, 2018).


Importantly, this isn’t to say that we can’t learn key information from such studies. Even with a narrow group of participants, we can still learn something about that psychological phenomenon as it applies to those participants. That is, if I conduct a study with college students in the United States, I still have the potential to learn something important about American college students! Where we need to exercise caution is with interpreting such results as if they apply to everyone. If researchers hope that their results will apply meaningfully to a large group of people, they need to work hard to ensure that their study participants are representative of that larger group. If researchers believe that their results may differ among certain groups of participants, they should test this explicitly in order to help the field of psychology reveal what is universal and what is not.


As someone who is interested in psychology, what can you do moving forward? One important thing that you can always do is pay close attention to who the participants are in any study that you are learning about. Think carefully about their age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and location, and how these factors might influence the study results. Would these findings carry over to a different group? By asking and learning about who a study’s results are based on, you can gain a better sense for who the results may apply to and therefore improve your own understanding of the research findings.





Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature, 466, 29. doi:10.1038/466029a

Rad, M. S., Martingano, A. J., & Ginges, J. (2018). Toward a psychology of Homo sapiens: Making psychological science more representative of the human population. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115, 11401-11405. doi:10.1073/pnas.1721165115

Simons, D. J., Shoda, Y., & Lindsay, D. S. (2017). Constraints on generality (COG): A proposed addition to all empirical papers. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 1123-1128. doi: 10.1177/174569167708630

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