Recently, I was invited to present to a class of students working toward a Certificate IV in Aboriginal Primary Health – Social and Emotional Well Being. The student group were mainly Aboriginal Health and Community workers who work in Aboriginal communities. In putting together some notes around psychological theories I was reminded that I am weird. More specifically, W.E.I.R.D.
The WEIRD acronym stands for Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic. It’s a neat summary of the world view of many psychologists, and the world view in which much of the knowledge of contemporary psychology was developed. While all such acronyms have to be taken with a pinch of salt, this one is particularly relevant for a western psychologist working with people across diverse cultures, and its relevance was very much in focus as we discussed the value and use of psychological theories during the Certificate IV class. It’s also particularly important to remember that most of the seven billion or so human beings currently sharing our world are not W.E.I.R.D. Two thirds of people are Eastern for a start, and even if we have the E.I.R.D parts in common, the differences between eastern, western and other cultures still strongly influence everything from spirituality, our roles in society and what is most important to us in living a quality life.
So what does this mean for practicing psychology, or for that matter, going to a psychologist to make use of the service we offer? I’m personally of the view that to genuinely develop an understanding of the situation someone is in, to genuinely support someone in working through life challenges – be they traumatic, medical, present difficulties or the consequences of past events – then the psychologist needs to have some knowledge of the culture you live within. Fortunately, there are some ways in which psychologists can broaden their understanding of different cultures; through experience, cultural mentors and employing culturally sensitive therapeutic approaches such as Narrative Therapy. These approaches won’t suddenly make a psychologist ‘of a different culture’, however through these approaches the assumptions and biases we have inherited from our own culture can at least be set aside.
We have the good fortune at Huisy Howland Psychology to have worked extensively across diverse cultures. Gina Huisy is a Chinese Australian Psychologist, with a wealth of lived experience in Australian and Chinese cultures and I have worked closely with Social and Emotional Well Being counselors and case workers in Aboriginal communities for some time now – long enough to have developed an appreciation of how people from minority cultures in Australia often live in two worlds; that of ‘mainstream’ Australia and that of their cultural heritage.
Of course, the East/West divide isn’t where cultural similarity and difference begin and end… there is still the wealth of difference in life opportunity, expectations and world view between people with different levels of personal wealth, access to education, rural versus metropolitan living and so on. Ultimately the onus is on us, as psychologists, to be able to see beyond our own W.E.I.R.D-ness in genuinely attending to the unique needs, values and circumstances of clients who come to work with us.
P.S. As an afterthought, I was considering describing myself as W.E..I.r.D – a small r for rich. I don’t drive a flash car or live in a mansion. Then I remembered the holiday to Bali my partner and I are planning, and the Australian Dollar exchange rate (one A$ is currently buying more than ten thousand Indonesian Rupiah). A sober reminder that even those of us of modest means in Australia are wealthy compared to most of our seven billion fellow human beings.
Christoher Howland (2012).