The Dangers of Weird Neuroscience


How do psychologists know what they know about human mental processes?

Quite often, they run studies to see how people behave: what do they remember? where do they look? what do they choose? how do they describe their thoughts?

If they run those studies just right, psychologists can test a very small number of people, and reach conclusions about a very large number of people.

Perhaps they can reach conclusions about all 7,400,000,000  of us.


What if that small group of people being studied isn’t even remotely a representative sample of the world’s population. What if almost all of them are psychology majors at American colleges and universities?

What if they are–almost exclusively–from countries that are Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic?

(Notice that, cleverly, those adjectives acronym up to the word WEIRD.)

Here’s an example of the problem. Last year, I spoke about Mindset at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa: a school that draws students from all across the African continent.

And yet, I know of no research at all that studies Mindset in an African cultural context. I could share with them research from the US, and from Hong Kong, and from France, and from Taiwan. But Africa? Nothing.

How valid are Mindset conclusions for their students? We don’t really know–at least, “know” in the way that psychologists want to know things–until we do research in Africa.

(By the way: if you know of some Mindset research done in Africa, please send it my way…)

Beyond Psychology

This article over at The Atlantic does a good job of describing this problem in neuroscience.

Because the sample of the population included in neuroscience studies is so skewed, the conclusions we reach about…say…typical brain development schedules are simply wrong.

Better said: those conclusions are correct about the subset of the population being studied, but not necessarily correct for everyone else.

And, of course, most people are “everyone else.”

What Does This Problem Mean for Teachers?

Here’s my advice to teachers:

When a researcher gives you advice, find out about the participants included in their study. If those participants resemble your students, that’s good. But if not, you needn’t be too quick to adopt this researcher’s advice.

For example: if a study of college students shows that a particular kind of challenging feedback promotes a growth mindset, that information is very helpful for people who teach college.

But, if you teach 3rd grade, you might need to translate that challenging feedback to fit your students’ development. In fact, you might need to set it aside altogether.

Because participants in these studies are often so WEIRD, we should beware extrapolating results to the rest of the world’s students, including our own.

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