How Smartphones Could Keep Psychology From Getting Too WEIRD

In 2004, I was a lab rat for about 15 minutes. A psychology professor at Juniata College, where I spent my freshman year, was conducting an experiment. I don’t remember what exactly he was studying, but it involved video games. He put up posters around campus and gathered a bunch of volunteers in a campus building basement to frag each other in several rounds of Unreal Tournament. I lost pretty quickly, but did my part. I think I got a game store gift card for my time.

Now ideally, if you want to learn anything useful about human brains and behavior, you try to get a large and diverse group of people to draw your conclusions from. But as Canadian psychologist Joseph Henrich and colleagues revealed in a 2010 paper in Behavioral Brain Sciences, a lot of psych studies are done the same way as the one I participated in.

That is, they test ideas by looking at small and homogeneous groups of volunteers brought to college campuses and research facilities, usually drawing those volunteers from the school’s student body or the local population. (The rest of the guys in my study were, like me, all white male undergrads who liked playing first person shooters.)

WEIRD Science

Henrich’s team looked at hundreds of studies in leading psychology journals, and found that 68 percent of the research subjects came from the United States, and 67 percent of those were undergraduate psychology students. Overall, 96 percent of the subjects came from Western industrialized countries that, together, make up only 12 percent of the world's population. Frequently, studies that claim to reveal something universal about the human brain or our behavior are really just extrapolating results from the same (relatively) small groups.

This kind of study-building method results in the overrepresentation of a population that the authors dub WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Sure, we’re all human. We’re all working with more or less the same software in our skulls. But, the researchers say, culture and environment play a role in shaping how we use that software. There are important differences in the way my brain works versus, say, a rural farmer in China, versus a member of a hunter-gatherer tribe on an island in the South Pacific, when it comes to areas like “visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ.”

“The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans,” the paper continues. We, the WEIRD ones, are actually  “highly unrepresentative of the species,” but form the basis for so much of what we think we know about ourselves.

Henrich and his colleagues call for their fellow scientists to collect comparative data across culturally and geographically diverse populations before drawing conclusions about our species as a whole. But how do you do that? With shrinking funding and small staffs, it’s not always feasible, to conduct a study in your own lab and then go elsewhere to get a different sample, or even to try to attract a diverse sample to you. Researchers have tried to get volunteers from the far reaches of the globe to participate in web-based studies, but found that mice and keyboards and web page interfaces couldn’t provide the precision necessary for understanding the subtle details and changes of cognitive processes and behavioral responses.

Pick up the Phone

But now there’s a new way to bring non-WEIRD volunteers right to the researchers. The number of smartphone users worldwide is expected to top one billion by next year. The technology has found a home in almost every social group in every part of the world, Western and Eastern, educated and not, industrialized and agrarian, rich and poor, democratic, autocratic and theocratic. Not only are they everywhere, but they’re well suited to collecting scientific data. They can transmit and receive multiple types of media and commands, can transfer time- and location-coded data, and can time, down to the millisecond, stimuli display and touchscreen responses. They are, an international team of scientists suggested last year, ideally adapted to studying cognitive function and could be used as a “multi-dimensional scientific ‘instrument’ capable of experimentation on a previously unthought-of scale” that could reveal things about the human mind long hidden by smaller experiments.

Researchers could take advantage of smartphones to revolutionize research in cognitive science, the paper argues, but the studies and the technology have to come together in a way that makes it work. To see if smartphones could live up to their promise in a real-world study, Stephane Dufau, the lead author, and her team took their idea for a road-test, without ever leaving the lab.

An App for That

The researchers developed an iPhone/iPad app that replicates the "lexical decision task,” a test used by generations of psychologists. By measuring response time and accuracy in deciding if a given string of letters is a word (e.g. “table”) or not (e.g. “tible”), researchers have gained insight into the cognitive processes involved in reading, as well as reading impairments like dyslexia. The app, called Science XL, was made free for the general public to download from the App Store in seven different languages in December 2010. By March, 2011, the team had collected results from over four thousand participants, a number they say would have taken several years, and considerably more money, to collect via more conventional means.

The results collected so far are similar to those obtained by running the test in laboratory conditions and match many of the known features of this type of data, indicating that an app-based study like this doesn’t introduce variables that affect the results.

Another team of American researchers launched a similar app-based study to look at age-related differences in cognition. They got 15,000 people to participate and their results replicated specific patterns and data found in lab experiments. This study did reveal some problems with the app-based data collection, though. One hindrance the researchers noted is the lack of ability they had to monitor the participants. Their app instructions recommended that users complete their tasks without distractions, but there’s no way they could tell if someone used the app while multitasking or in a noisy environment, which might affect their performance.

Since there’s no obligation or accountability for completing the tasks, there was also a higher participant dropout rate than in many lab studies. Still, the researchers say that the larger sample size that the app gave them access to compensated for the loss in data amount and quality.

These two studies suggest smartphones are a reliable way to collect culturally and geographically diverse data on an enormous scale. The smartphone, far from being just a gadget that lets you tweet from the bathroom, could be as important to scientific exploration as the microscope or the lunar lander. They could potentially allow for direct tests of the universality of cognitive theories and make our understanding of ourselves a little less WEIRD.

The Science XL study is ongoing, so if you want to take part, the app is free to download from iTunes AppStore.

Justin Tallis, AFP/Getty Images
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 Cemeteries Unearthed at Construction Sites
Justin Tallis, AFP/Getty Images
Justin Tallis, AFP/Getty Images

The people who lived before us are often just beneath our feet, even if their tombs are sometimes forgotten. Lost under urban development, they are rediscovered when a subway, building, or other structure claims the ground for progress. Here are eight burial sites that came to light in this unconventional manner.


The construction of Rome's subway has unearthed everything from a 2nd-century home decorated with mosaics and frescos to a 2300-year-old aqueduct. The San Giovanni station, slated to open in 2018, will feature displays of artifacts found during its excavation, such as Renaissance ceramics and the remains of a 1st-century agricultural fountain.

Back in 2016, extension work on Line C ran into a 2nd-century military barracks with 39 rooms, likely used by Emperor Hadrian's army, as well as a mass grave of 13 skeletons. The dead may have been members of the elite Praetorian Guard, protectors of the Roman emperor. Investigations are ongoing, although officials have planned for the barracks to be incorporated into the station architecture. Its opening date remains in limbo as archaeological finds continue to slow its construction.


In 1991, construction of a federal office building revealed a colonial-era burial ground in Lower Manhattan. The graves, dating back to the 1690s, had been lost due to landfill and development, yet were identified as part of the African burial grounds that in the 17th century were located outside the old city.

Banned from interment in white cemeteries, free and enslaved Africans and African Americans had established a place to give respect to their dead, with an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 burials. Thanks to grassroots activism, including protests against continued construction, the site is now commemorated with the African Burial Ground National Monument, which opened in 2006.

It's not the sole black cemetery to be buried under development in New York: The Second African Burial Ground, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, is located below today's Sarah D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side; and in East Harlem, a 17th-century slave burial ground, discovered by construction workers at a bus depot, awaits a planned memorial.


Burrowing deep under London, the ongoing Crossrail commuter rail project has exposed obscure layers of the city's past—and a treasure trove of history. Along with medieval ice skates and a Tudor bowling ball, archaeologists have identified two mass graves. One has 13 skeletons of people who probably died in the 14th century of Black Death (with DNA on their teeth still holding the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis); a larger site has 42 skeletons of victims of the Great Plague of 1665. The study of the Great Plague skeletons, excavated in 2015 by Museum of London Archaeology, similarly showed traces of the disease in their old teeth. (Luckily the bacteria is no longer active, so no need to dust off your plague doctor beak mask.)

While such "plague pits" have long been rumored—some urban legends say the London Underground had to curve to avoid messy heaps of bodies—study of the sites indicated that there was in fact great care taken with the deceased. The bodies were placed in individual coffins, giving them some dignity even in this hasty mass burial.


Sometimes, to borrow a line from Poltergeist, people only move the headstones when relocating a cemetery, and stray bones and coffins are left behind (digging up the dead is generally unpleasant work). That seemed to be the case with a graveyard unearthed at a construction site on Arch Street in Philadelphia in March 2017. The dozens of coffins that were discovered are believed to be part of the First Baptist Church Burial Ground, established in 1707 and supposedly moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery in 1859. The Mütter Institute spearheaded a crowdfunding campaign for analysis and reinterment of the bones, and volunteer archaeologists convened at the site, racing against time to map the grounds and remove the burials of more than 100 people. Their remains were carefully analyzed.

Archaeologists subsequently found the remains of more than 400 people at the site as construction went on in other areas. Building at the site continues, as does the grassroots-funded research on the bones (you can follow the team's progress at the Arch Street Bones Project website).


In 2013, construction on a subway in Thessaloniki, Greece, turned up the grave of a woman buried around 2300 years ago. The Early Hellenistic lady was interred with a gold olive branch wreath.

Surprisingly, this wasn't the first such skeleton found during subway construction to be so regally crowned. In 2008, another Hellenistic woman was discovered with four gold wreaths and gold earrings in the shape of dogs' heads, all indicators of wealth and respectability—something marred a bit by the sewage pipe that had wrecked part of her grave.


While digging a trench in 2013 for a gas pipeline in Saskatchewan, Canada, a contractor noticed bone fragments in the soil that turned out to be 1000-year-old human remains.

Construction was halted so First Nations elders and archaeologists could examine the area. Ultimately, the pipeline company opted to tunnel deeper to avoid disturbing the ancient burials.

It was only one of many instances of massive infrastructure projects coming in contact with pre-colonial burial grounds. In 2017, for example, road construction in Duluth, Minnesota desecrated graves when the state's department of transportation failed to evaluate the area for artifacts prior to breaking ground.


Near Weymouth in Dorset, England, a mass grave of more than 50 young men was discovered in 2009 by archaeologists doing a survey before road construction began. All the victims had been killed brutally, at once, with multiple blows from a sharp weapon visible on their bones, and their heads had been severed. In 2010, researchers identified them as Vikings by radio-carbon dating the bones to 910 to 1030 CE, when the English clashed with Viking invaders. Analysis of the isotopes in the teeth indicated Scandinavian origins. Due to their lack of clothing and their similar manner of death, they were likely executed as captives. They're now part of the Dorset County Museum.


Among the roughly 38,000 people interred beneath a neighborhood on Chicago's Far Northwest Side are the impoverished inmates of the Cook County almshouse and patients from the county insane asylum. The area was known as Dunning, and its squalid institutions were so well known that a judge in 1889 declared them a "tomb for the living." The 20 acres of the site also included a potter's field for the indigent and unclaimed, and the burials of more than 100 unidentified dead from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The potter's field was revealed in 1989 during construction on luxury homes. Sewer workers who were laying pipes also turned up a corpse that was so well-preserved his handlebar mustache was still visible. Bodies were relocated to a site now called Read-Dunning Memorial Park, giving these dead some recognition in the city for the first time.

Just Two Cans of Soda a Day May Double Your Risk of Death From Heart Disease

If you've been stocking your refrigerator full of carbonated corn syrup in anticipation of warmer weather, the American Heart Association has some bad news. The advocacy group on Wednesday released results of research that demonstrate a link between consumption of sugary drinks—including soda, fruit juices, and other sweetened beverages—and an increased risk of dying from heart disease.

Study participants who reported consuming 24 ounces or more of sugary drinks per day had twice the risk of death from coronary artery disease of those who averaged less than 1 ounce daily. There was also an increased risk of death overall, including from other cardiovascular conditions.

The study, led by Emory University professor Jean Welsh, examined data taken from a longitudinal study of 17,930 adults over the age of 45 with no previous history of heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. Researchers followed participants for six years, and examined death records to determine causes. They observed a greater risk of death associated with sugary drinks even when they controlled for other factors, including race, income, education, smoking habits, and physical activity. The study does not show cause and effect, the researchers said, but does illuminate a trend.

The study also noted that while it showed an increased risk of death from heart disease, consumption of sugary foods was not shown to carry similar risk. One possible explanation is that the body metabolizes the sugars differently: Solid foods carry other nutrients, like fat and protein, that slow metabolism, while sugary drinks provide an undiluted influx of carbohydrates that the body must process.

The news will likely prove troublesome for the beverage industry, which has long contended with concerns that sugary drinks contribute to type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. Some cities, including Seattle, have introduced controversial "soda tax" plans that raise the sales tax on the drinks in an effort to discourage consumption.


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