Survey biases employed to produce intelligence that informs billions of dollars of economic focus and effort globally. That’s WEIRD…

By: Richard Neal, CSO

Recent scientific news made a splash across disciplines yet remained relatively untouched by the general media (mainstream media). This is unfortunate in that it offers a view into the inherent biases “baked into” how survey methodologies (obviously inclusive of market research) are executed and employed to produce intelligence that informs billions of dollars of economic focus and effort globally (think: your corporate business development, marketing and insights budget in addition to the larger realm of worldwide commercial endeavors).

The news pertained to details emerging from the work of Joseph Henrich, professor of human evolutionary biology (HEB) at the University of British Columbia, as lead on a paper published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences that proposed a WEIRD problem in, primarily, psychological studies by American researchers. The work reviewed within this corpus, a random selection of highly-cited papers, showed a pattern emerged on the individuals used within the underlying surveys supporting the research. This pattern is defined as a grouping encompassing attributes identified as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (W.E.I.R.D.).

The problem being that findings from the mass of research had erroneously been extrapolated as outcomes reflective of humanity, in general, yet the conclusions actually were drawn from very specific subgroup with unique behaviors. In extremely detailed prose leading to an anticlimactic output, Henrich identified this subgroup as “college students.”  Surprised? It seems that College Psychology Professors are human. Still surprised? Humans fall into several (umbrella) meta-categories defined as behaviors that are broadly diffused across all cultures, but degrees of affectation differ among segments and contexts. The category for the WEIRD Professor confound is what we call “Laxity.” The top-level categorical element of Laxity is an observed, repeated behavioral phenomena quantified through volumes of scientific and philosophical disciplines ranging from neuroeconomics to game theory to religious studies depicting humanity as seeking “the highest possible return for the lowest possible investment.”

To put this into context, College Psychology experiments (often underscored by survey-data collection methods) don’t go beyond campus borders due to a relatively high Laxity Score (experienced as ease of accessing the student body) and other assorted, related impactors, such as budget constraints that reinforce the campus-locus skew. Can you think of other examples of the Laxity weakness pertaining to survey science?  How about the 2016 Presidential Election Voter Preference Polls executed via survey takers (in person and on the phone) specific or restricted to only metropolitan centers predominantly on both coasts?

Keywords: Survey, Market Research, Biases, Subgroups, Laxity, 2016 Presidential Election, market insights, human evolutionary biology, survey bias, psychology, experiments, college students, voter preference polls, Joseph Henrich, behavioral and brain sciences, methodology

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