One size does not fit all
How our cross cultural research agenda is making room for truly generalizable results
By Tom Wein and Chang Tang
An academic paper is often judged by how well it has understood the field it is studying and its contribution towards advancing said field. By that standard behavioral economics literature has failed the world by failing to understand contexts outside its birthplace and producing non-generalizable results. Many of the canonical biases and heuristics that lie at the core of behavioral economics literature were studied mainly or exclusively among populations of Western graduates, a tiny proportion of the world’s population who are themselves different from other adults in their own societies. So far as we are aware, none of the commonly employed biases and heuristics was first identified in the Global South, nor was the work to identify any of these led by a scholar from the Global South. Even when research is conducted in the Global South, it is often skewed towards a subset of more-studied countries, and a subset of more easily accessed populations within them.
How can we claim to know what we know if — even within this limited pool of knowledge — plenty of catchy findings fall by the wayside for reasons ranging from outright fraud to a simple failure to replicate? What do our findings about one group of people in one place and time mean about what we know of another group somewhere else? And, if these findings can’t serve those with the least power in the world, correcting power imbalances, then who are we pursuing this knowledge for?
The majority of the world is missing from the data. Fewer than one in six of the articles published in top 20 development journals from 1990 to 2019 were by Southern researchers. When the calculation was made in 2008, only 0.002% of psychology’s top research findings came from African samples. No wonder behavioral science research when deployed in the real world can sometimes seem so brittle. Redressing this imbalance — the WEIRD problem — is part of Busara’s founding mission.
From 2022 to 2025, we’ll be answering four very big questions about behavior in the Global South, and whether we really know what we think we know. These four questions will give us a funnel for ‘de-WEIRDing’ behavioral science.
- What is a coherent, theoretically important and valid set of contextually appropriate, tested, reliable measures of canonical patterns of behavior, cognitive processes, preferences, beliefs, and decision-making processes?
- How do the answers to these questions vary across gender, racial, national, economic and cultural groups, in places that are not Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic?
- What large scale contextual, theoretical and historical factors do we hypothesize may explain that variance, and what does this tell us about how to judge whether a finding will generalize to a new time or place?
- Do any new or existing patterns of behavior, cognitive processes, preferences, beliefs, and decision-making processes emerge from the study of, and have a unique relevance to, the Global South?
We have always studied these topics. In fact, it’s embedded in almost every project we do — and our more than 500 studies have extended global knowledge in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, India, Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia, Fiji and beyond. We’ve directly examined behavioral biases in comparisons between privileged students and working folk in Nairobi, New Jersey and Haryana, India. Along the way we’ve learned more about how to measure these constructs in locally relevant ways, seen how often students are the odd ones, in every society, and started to learn what works to consistently prompt behavior change (spoiler: in our work, making things more salient and tangible seems to work well, while endorsements are less promising). Because we are an institution that consistently does a great deal of research in many under-studied places, we’re in a unique position to understand what findings generalize, in ways that individual researchers perhaps cannot.
Our first studies under this research agenda are already underway. But we cannot achieve this alone. We will need allies, advocates, funders and collaborators. For more information on our cross cultural research agenda, read through our blue paper here. If you have feedback on this agenda, and especially if you’d like to help us study it, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact Anisha Singh on email@example.com.