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WEIRD Psychology

Know thy audience

The golden rule of marketing - start with your audience, it’s what we’re all taught. We use models and frameworks based on human behaviour, on what we think is rooted in robust research.  We diligently include the source in our presentations and pat ourselves on the back for using evidence based recommendations.

But what if what we think we know about human behaviour isn’t a true reflection and inclusive of all of New Zealand, let alone the world at large?

Cultural diversity is growing

I’m going to hazard a guess that most of you reading this are concerned with the NZ market, coming from the UK has been fascinating understanding not only the Kiwi psyche but the fact we have a uniquely bi-cultural nation.  One that is growing in importance.  In the last census those that identified with Māori heritage grew by 30% vs just 7% rate of population growth.  

Not to mention the other cultures that make up our communities. A recent projection sees Asian audiences making up a quarter of the population by 2043, with Auckland ahead of the curve with 28% Asian population.

And for our marketing efforts to be effective - we need to not only reach, but engage with, as many people in New Zealand as possible. That goes beyond simply adding a ‘cultural’ channel to our plans.


This is where we have our problem

The models, frameworks and psychological understanding of humans are based on a certain type of person.

Drawing on the extensive research of Joseph Henrich (Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Harvard) and his colleagues, who analyzed thousands of cross-cultural psychological studies from 2006 to 2010.

Out of all of the papers they reviewed, 96% were from either Northern Europe, North America or Australia. 96%!!!  These areas make up only 12% of the global population. A staggering ratio.


If that wasn’t enough….almost 70% of those studies were from North America.

Give some thought to who takes part in these studies, they take place in prestigious universities and draw on the nearest, most available candidates. American college students. 

We’re using models and frameworks, for our increasingly diverse communities, predominantly based on the psychology of American college students.

It goes without saying that the motivations, value systems and worldview of these participants would be quite different not only to broad NZers, but specifically to our cultural make-up.

It’s all just a bit…WEIRD.

WEIRD is the acronym used for this type of research, research that has come from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic countries. It’s a niche view on the world at large and should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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How are they different?

WEIRD or ‘Individualistic societies’ Focus on needs of the individual person and have certain traits or world view:

  • Each person is encouraged to strive to achieve their own potential, often in competition with, and sometimes to the detriment of their peers. 
  • The idea of self expression is nurtured, with each individual having the freedom to be oneself.
  • There is a focus on self development, how you can better your own situation.


Non WEIRD or ‘Collectivistic societies’

At the risk of generalising the entire rest of the world there are some traits that we see in non weird research:

  • The importance is placed on cooperation and communities - working for the benefit of the collective - believing that societies can only improve by a group effort amongst all members.
  • They perceive things in relation to other people - for example a study was conducted with US and East Asian children describing their last birthday.  The American kids described their role in the day - what activities they did, what presents they received.  Vs. East Asian kids talking more about who was there and who gave them presents.
  • There is also this concept of systems based thinking. For example when addressing addiction - focusing on the network attached to the individual, not just the individual.
  • Of the cross cultural research that exists, variances were also found in emotional facial recognition. Imagine the impact this has with our creative executions.

You still find these cultural echoes in immigrants to western countries as the behaviours are passed on from generation to generation.


Put more simply - a bit less ‘ME’, and a bit more ‘WE’

So what do we do about it?

I’m sorry to disappoint you but there’s not a neat little model at the end of this article.  To summarise the nuances of cultural differences in a single model would be like taking a hammer to crack a nut.

But what I do have is a checklist of sorts, a “cultural 4 Cs”.  To guide your thinking and assess where you might be on your journey.

  1. Consideration - think back to the models and frameworks you’re using currently - do they speak specifically to WEIRD people, how might they be limiting.  Some immediate red flags are raised when thinking about the following:
  • FOG behaviour change - what would motivation look like to a non-WEIRD group
  • Maslow's hierarchy of needs - which places self actualization as the pinnacle we’re all striving towards
  • Jungian archetypes directing the way in which we bring our comms to life
  1. Really understand cultural cues when conducting your research - go beyond demographics, apply a layer of world view and value systems to your thinking. 
  2. Creative - ensure you’re showing more than 1 person - highlight the relationships between people, how do they interact?
  3. The real answer lies in working in Collaboration with key cultural allies from the get go, true co-creation of new solutions.  Not just an afterthought at the end to get sign off.  Bake this into your processes. 


Parting thoughts

It’s our collective responsibility to ensure we are truly striving for the good of all of us, not just a bunch of weirdos. 

There’s a lot we can, and need to learn, from non-western cultures, especially when faced with global issues like climate change, discrimination and equality.

I’ll leave you with this parting thought of an African concept called Ubuntu, which i think is something we can all get on board with...

“In Africa there is a concept known as ‘Ubuntu’ - the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world it will, in equal measure, be due to the work and achievement of others” Nelson Mandela 



NZ Stats, Census data 2013 & 2018

NZ Herald

The Weirdest People in the World, Joseph Henrich et al. 2010

Emily Ostrowska is an Integrated Strategist at Stanley St in our Wellington office. She has worked both client and agency side across a breadth of industries.

With experience grounded in digital marketing, brand management and strategic planning, in addition to studies around behavioural science and psychology.

Emily effectively knits marketing strategy and consumer behaviour to deliver against business objectives for our clients.

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Emily Ostrowska Integrated Strategist