Too often psychology experiments fail to take basic demographics of their participants into consideration.
Back in 2003, a study1, was widely picked up in the media. ‘Want to be Happy?’ headlines screamed, ‘then spend your money on experiences, not things’. The main finding of the study fits well with twee platitudes trotted out by travel bloggers and ‘lifestyle influencers’ all over the internet. Whole Instagram feeds have sprung up, full of phrases like ‘Collect memories, not things’, written in calligraphy over photos of a beautiful young blonde woman running barefoot on the sand. And it is appealing. We have probably all considered, at some point, packing it all in and running off to a tropical island. Doing up an old camper van and hitting the road alone. Or maybe even taking our kids out of school to travel the world and learn from ‘the school of life’.
The problem is, as romantic as this picture seems, for most people it is no more achievable than walking on the moon. These kinds of experiences are only for the privileged- those who can afford, both in time and money, to drop everything. And this is where the write-ups of that original study missed an important point. The paper contained 4 experiments, and 3 of those were done on University of British Columbia undergraduates. And yes, these did find that experiences would make them happier than things. But the 4th study was more interesting- this was carried out by phoning 1,279 Americans, with a range of backgrounds. And when they looked at the demographics of people they had phoned, they found a difference. While on average, experiences were still more valued than things, there was a correlation between this and income. At the lower end of the spectrum, belongings were just as likely to make a person happy.
This year, finally, another study2 picked up on this and looked specifically at social class. They found that participants who self-rated as from a lower social class and who had fewer resources were made just as happy, or even happier, by material purchases as by experiences. It was only those who already had plenty who showed the ‘experiential advantage’. This seems like an obvious finding once you think about it. When putting together a gift list for our wedding, we included mostly experiences, as we knew they would make us happy by giving us something to look forward to. But we have been living together for years, and already have all the furniture and crockery we need. And as we both have decent jobs, we know that if we do discover a desperate need for a salad spinner, we can just buy ourselves one. If we weren’t in such a privileged position, objects might be a better choice- they last for longer and, unlike an experience, if times were to get really hard, they could be sold.
These studies highlight something of vital importance about psychology studies- we must pay attention to who the participants are, before assuming results generalise to everyone. Most studies use university undergrads, because they are easily available, and can be persuaded to do almost anything for a chocolate bar or (in the US) some course credit. But undergrads aren’t normal- in fact they are WEIRD3. This acronym stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. I would add that they are also Young, English-speaking and too often, White*. But when the studies are reported, it is made out they apply to everyone. This is a huge problem, and something that must be dealt with. Until we have a greater diversity of participants we just can’t know whether a finding tells us something fundamental about being human, or something about the cultural biases that we have been brought up with. Both are interesting, but to know which is which, something needs to change in the way psychology experiments are traditionally done. It won’t be easy, but it is vital for the future of psychology.
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* WEIRDY-EW has a pretty good ring to it- I wonder why they didn’t go with that!?
Ginny Smith is a science presenter and writer. A Natural Sciences and Psychology graduate of Cambridge, Ginny performs science shows all over the world and presents a wide range of science content for the likes of the Cosmic Shambles Network and the Naked Scientists. She is the co-author of three DK Publishing books looking at science, food and the human body. She is @GinnyFBSmith on Twitter.