Biology Magazine

Studies on Migrants Reveals TV Makes People WEIRD

Posted on the 09 February 2016 by Reprieve @EvoAnth

Evolutionary psychology tries to identify parts of our psychology that have evolved. Exactly like the name suggests. However, this endeavour is hampered by the people it studies. WEIRD samples are common.

WEIRD refers to people from a Western, Educated, Industralised, Rich, Democratic background. They make up the bulk of subjects tested by evolutionary psychologists. However, their WEIRD nature gives them so weird psychological quirks (if you'll pardon the pun).

As such, it appears they might not be representative of humanity as a whole. Any research conducted on them becomes dubious.

But just what is it that makes people become WEIRD?

WEIRD problems

Evolutionary psychology and WEIRD samples is a bit of a pet peeve of my mine. As such, I won't spend too long on it.

But I can't help but get flustered again. EvoPsych could be great. It could (and sometimes does) provide invaluable insights into how evolution has shaped our brains. And since our brains are such a key part of what makes us human; this is key to understanding our evolution.

And yet, for every good study that sheds light on our evolution there are half a dozen that use unrepresentative samples. Literally, I've done the calculations.

These samples can throw off results, rendering the study basically useless. Big differences in non-WEIRD populations include a focus on a more collective identity and not quite as much a focus analytical thinking. And there's my personal favourite difference: lines that are actually the same, but WEIRD people have a hard time realising that.

Migrants hold the key

Fortunately for evolutionary psychologists there are people out there who aren't WEIRD. Often, these people migrate into WEIRD areas. This provides a unique opportunity to study the spread of WEIRD culture.

And that's exactly what a group of psychologists did. They examined recent migrants to the UK from non-WEIRD communities, along with their children, and native UKians (and their children). This would allow them to investigate how the WEIRD culture that is "Britain" spreads.

If it was primarily learnt from the parents, for example, then one would expect there to be a difference in WEIRD levels between the children of migrants and British folk. On the other hand, if children learn WEIRD from an external source - like school or TV - then both sets of kids should have similar levels. And if it's some mixture of the two, then there should be a minor difference between the two groups (since one isn't getting the WEIRD reinforcement at home).

Whether or not a kid counted as WEIRD wasn't based on if they adopted "British values" (although that did factor into it). Rather, the aforementioned signatures of Western culture were studied. Did they show more individualisim? Were they engaging in a more analytical way of thinking? The entirety of Western culture, boiled down into a handy booklet. Is there anything science can't do?


The results of this study - as the headline of this article kind of gives away - revealed that second generation migrants were a lot more "Western" than their parents.

This would indicate that there is a rather strong source of WEIRDness outside the family, influencing this generation as they grew up. Nevertheless, they were not identical to those born to native UKites; indicating that parents also had a role in the "culture" of the children. Yet not a strong enough role to completely overrule the sources that were making these kids "Western".

But what was perhaps more interesting is that the first generation migrants were still not Western. There was no real link between how they scored on the WEIRD tests and the length of time they had been living in the UK. Unfortunately, it's not as though people are being given psychological questionairres on the border so we can't confirm there was no change during their time in the UK. Still, it does seem as though there is a prime "learning" time during which acculturation occurs. You can't teach an old dog new tricks.

However, whilst these results are very interesting there are a few issues in my mind. In particular, the fact they focused on how the second generation individuals were thinking. To me, this seems like the sort of stuff that would be strongly influenced by school and teaching. Would less "intellectual" WEIRD characteristics show the same pattern? Take the aforementioned optical illusion. That seems like it might be less strongly influenced by education. So would the "mistake" become more prevalent in the second generation too.

Nevertheless, the dominance of external sources in the development of WEIRDness is fascinating. If borne out by further study, that is.


People seem to learn to be WEIRD from external sources, rather than their parents.


Henrich, J., Heine, S.J. and Norenzayan, A., 2010. Most people are not WEIRD. Nature, 466(7302), pp.29-29.

Mesoudi, A., Magid, K. and Hussain, D., 2016. How Do People Become WEIRD? Migration Reveals the Cultural Transmission Mechanisms Underlying Variation in Psychological Processes. PloS one, 11(1).

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