Are All Research Participants Outliers?

A Pacific Standard profile of noted social psychologist Joe Henrich has some staggering information about how social scientists conduct their research:

Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.

The Economics Revolution Will Be Televised

There’s a revolution underway in economics. It’s not due to the financial crisis, but rather something more mundane: Data, and computing power. At least that’s the claim that Betsey Stevenson and I make in our latest Bloomberg View column:

“Consider the stream of data you will create today. Your metro card will record what time you caught the train. Your Web browser will note how you go about your job, and how much you procrastinate. A mid-afternoon purchase at Starbucks will reveal your penchant for lattes and the occasional cookie. Your flow of e-mail traffic will trace out your professional and personal networks.

At the same time, computing power has made it extremely easy and cheap to analyze all the data you produce. An economist with a laptop can, in a matter of seconds, do the kind of number crunching it used to take a roomful of Ph.D.’s weeks to achieve. Just a few decades ago, economists used punch cards to program data analysis for their empirical studies.”

Two weeks ago, Harvard’s Raj Chetty gave a spectacular talk at the National Bureau of Economic Research, about what he called “The Transformative Potential of Administrative Data.” He documented that today’s cutting-edge research is based on crunching newly-available data from the vast databases which underlay our schools, welfare state and tax systems.  I’m just as optimistic that new data coming online from the private sector will prove to be just as useful.