In a 2010 article in Behavioural and Brain Sciences, Joseph Heinrich and colleagues showed that many important studies in psychology were based on questionnaire surveys conducted on a WEIRD (western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic) sample made up mostly of American undergraduate students who are the most cost-effective and readily available demographic.
Dr Heinrich from the University of British Columbia in Canada and his colleagues concluded that while undergraduates made good guinea pigs, extrapolating the findings to rest of humanity was a convenient leap in faith and not related to science.
Such unempirical practice would haved continued if psychology had not embraced a new method called crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing involves online workers who answer survey questions for minimum remuneration. Workers come from diverse backgrounds and belong to 100 countries. 40 per cent of the participants are still Americans, but almost one third are Indians, since there are many online workers in India who are fluent in English.
Although this survey population is still not totally representative of all humans, findings from this new cosmopolitan online cohort have the ability to alter widely trusted concepts about human psyche and behaviour. Here is an example.
Does the end justify the means? For example, can we kill someone to achieve a universal good? This is a question that is very relevant for us Nepalis. But answers would vary significantly depending on the composition of the study group. People around the world hold very different views about morality than American undergraduate students.
Many researchers in psychology are excited about this new method of studying the way humans think and react. Indeed many believe that this is the dawn of a new era in psychology.
Two scholars would have been especially excited by this turn of events. The German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin and the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud. Although Kraepelin dealt with drugs and pathophysiological pathways in the brain and Freud studied repressed emotions as a cause of mental illnesses, these early investigators would have been attracted to the crowdsourcing method of collecting accurate data. They both realised that unlike physical ailments where the pathology is often clear, psychology is more challenging and a better set of data and conclusions is the first step to helping patients.