Ecological Thinking and Sample Diversity can improve Psychological Science: Researchers

Ecological Thinking and Sample Diversity can improve Psychological Science: Researchers

In a new paper, featured in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers argued with the long-known cluster of five personality traits or ‘Big Five’ that universally determine the structure of human personality.

For long, consensus among psychologists across the globe has held that five universal traits including conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and neuroticism, or a slight variation define human personality. However, in the recent study, a research team led by anthropologist Michael Gruven at UC Santa Barbara discovered only two dimensions of personality instead of five in an isolated indigenous population known as ‘Tsimane’ in the Bolivian Amazon. Apart from finding two traits–prosociality and industriousness, the research spanning nearly twenty years raised several questions on what is universal and why. Perhaps what’s applicable on one culture cannot be extrapolated onto another.

A Sample Diversity Problem in Psychology

According to Gruven, sociological theory and sample diversity are necessary for enhancing the integrity and explanatory power of the social sciences. Psychology is one of the social sciences that particularly suffers from a sample diversity problem, he added.

Although there have been many attempts to diversify the samples, 90% of participants in studies featured in top journals of developmental psychology are North America or Europe origin. These participants are playfully termed as WEIRD samples – Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democracies; depending on this particular sample is not unique to developmental psychology but common to various subfields of psychology.

The participants hailing from these regions constitutes only 18% of the world population, Gruven added, how can many areas of psychology generalize study findings as human universal based on tiny subset of humanity. “And it’s not trivial”, he said.

Accounting for Cultural Differences

According to the research team, there are innumerable set of examples of how certain stylized truths which are considered to be universal, are definitely not when examined at different places.

The new research focused on how to diversify both who they study and who does the studying to improve the science while another was on how to take culture seriously and to what extent. Over time, cultural differences within or across population are often ignored and considered irrelevant, according to the researchers.

Socio-ecological Theory

Gruven explained that although socio-ecological theory is usually ignored in most of the psychological science, it is rooted in evolutionary and ecological principles that helps to link together the life and social sciences.

Attention to this theory enabled the researchers to look beyond convenience sample both within the United States and abroad, and resulted into improved psychological science. Further, it can be used to understand psychological variation, to address issues related to ability or not, and to replicate a study to attain similar findings.

According to Gruven, it is necessary to consider population living under a wide range of experiences, cultures, and environments in order to understand the human condition. If generations of schooling, industrialization, and world religions are the factors that make certain humans WEIRD, then it is require to better understand how these exposures affect behavior and psychology.

In his paper, Gruven used theoretical framework and explained that the ‘Big five’ is represented in most developed, urban countries. Increasing complexity of a country lower the correlation across the ‘Big five’ and other factors are used to measure the extent of correlation such as economic development, degree of urbanization and number of diverse products the country produces.

The researchers explained that the implications of what social science choose to study are enormous. To increase the diversity of samples, psychologist cannot rely only on disciplines like cultural psychology and anthropology, it needs to improve representation and testing across larger swath of human experience. They believed that these practices will become a mainstream across social science.

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