WEIRD Trauma Research: We Can Do Better

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By: Cathryn Richmond & Selamawit Hailu

Cathryn Richmond
Cathryn Richmond

Approximately 99% of all psychological research has been conducted by researchers at Western universities with 96% of samples from Western industrialized countries, though these countries represent only 12% of the world’s population (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010).  Not only does this lead to incorrect conclusions about the human species as a whole, but WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic; Henrich et al., 2010) methodology also dramatically limits our understanding of individuals within one’s own society.

Selamawit Hailu
Selamawit Hailu

Such problematic methodology is particularly concerning in the context of trauma research.  Minority status is crucial to consider, as discriminatory experiences can be traumatic and contribute to other adverse experiences (Clark, Anderson, Clark, & Williams, 1999; Williams, Connolly, Pepler, & Craig, 2005).  The inextricable interlocking of power systems (e.g., race, class, sex, gender) and the influence of these systems on the experiences of minority groups is critically understudied (Cyrus, 2017; Ghabrial, 2017; Nettles & Balter, 2011), particularly in the context of traumatic or adverse experiences (Brown & Pantalone, 2011; Triffleman & Pole, 2010).  Though a major shift in societal perceptions is warranted, the path begins with a better understanding of trauma within minority populations.

Theoretical Basis of Trauma Research

The existing body of research on trauma experiences has been guided by theories such as Erikson’s psychoanalytic theory of psychosocial development.  However, this theoretical basis is inherently incomplete as the nature of development may differ by population, evidenced by the utilization of separate models of identity development for characteristics such as race (e.g., Cross, 1991; Helms, 1995).

With regard to race specifically, the majority of studies that include large samples of racial minority populations draw from urban areas in the United States (US).  However, such environments are “highly ‘unnatural’ from the perspective of human evolutionary history,” (Henrich et al., 2010, p. 7) such that attempts to generalize to an entire race from urban samples are inappropriate yet overwhelmingly common.  Future research focusing on more rural populations of racial minorities is needed, including consideration of races thought to be of minority status in the US as well as races considered to be of minority status in the population of interest.

Trauma Methodology

The “home-field disadvantage” (Medin, Bennis, & Chandler, 2010) dramatically hinders the field as a whole.  The nature of trauma research follows the assumption that certain events are unequivocally negative and represent a universal risk factor for impaired development.  However, many events deemed by the researcher as “traumatic” may not be viewed as such by the participants, and vice versa.  For example, many traumatic event checklists assess events such as parental divorce/separation (Bremner, Bermetten, & Mazure, 2000), negating that these events are culturally-specific rather than universal, both in occurrence and interpretation.  Similarly, culturally-specific practices such as spanking or caning are typically assessed in the context of physical abuse, though they may only be viewed as abusive practices in certain populations (Lubell, Lofton, & Singer, 2008; Raval, Raval, Salvina, Wilson, & Writer, 2013).

Conversely, intrapersonal trauma, triggering of phobias, societal trauma, secondary/vicarious trauma, or in-group trauma are not typically assessed in the trauma literature.  Furthermore, minority-specific events and factors influencing risk and resilience are rarely assessed.  For example, factors such as age of migration and cultural bereavement for immigrants (e.g., Bhugra & Becker, 2005), asylum status and acculturative stress for refugees and asylum seekers (e.g., Li, 2016), living with family, age of coming out, and degree of outness for sexual minorities (Balsam et al., 2015), bathroom-related traumas and transition timing for gender minorities (Burnes, Dexter, Richmond, Singh, & Cherrington, 2016), and cultural identity including identity centrality, salience, culture of origin, and cultural practices and values (e.g., meditation/prayer, dignity, and two-spirit activities; Bhugra & Becker, 2005; Elm, Lewis, Walters, & Self, 2016; Umaña-Taylor et al., 2014) are also of critical importance yet rarely assessed.

History and Heterogeneity

Perhaps one of the most restrictive aspects of research in minority populations relates to the field being historically bound.  The current political climate in the US is quite unique, particularly in the context of minority research.  The Black Lives Matter and same-sex marriage movements have dramatically shifted the culture of the US and represent a unique period in our history.  During segregation, studies on populations of African Americans were essentially non-existent, and the few that focused on such populations did so in a eugenics-based manner that pathologized cultural differences (e.g., Ellis, 1911; Koch & Simmons, 1926).  Similarly, prior to the increased visibility of sexual and gender minorities, the only research involving these populations identified factors that differentiated them from the majority as innate and deficient.  This characterization is further evidenced by titles such as “The Homosexual Problem” (Adler, 1917) and descriptions of homosexuality as “a sign of degeneracy” and “a sad, deplorable, pathological phenomenon” (Robinson, 1914).

Even recent research is overtly biased by stereotypes; the basis of most previous research is that minority status is a risk factor for atypical development.  However, simply being a minority does not contribute to development of psychopathology.  The systemic power structures contributing to negative societal perceptions of such minority groups and the resulting experiences of hate and discrimination facing these individuals represent the true risk.

These stereotypical views result in research that ignores within-group differences, treating heterogeneous groups as homogenous.  The over categorization of racial groups assumes that these groups are homogeneous, that every individual will identify with at least one of these researcher-provided categorizations, and that individuals of “other” races will be both uncommon yet similar to one another.  Furthermore, restricting participants’ identity selection to only a single race discounts the unique cultural influences experienced by multi-racial individuals.  Moreover, with regard to ethnicity, the typical binary manner of assessment (Latinx or non-Latinx) is dramatically oversimplified, particularly given that many researchers as well as the US Census consider “Hispanic or Latino” to be a distinct and separate racial group.

Similarly, much research on sexual and gender minority populations assess these individuals as a homogeneous group and ignores biological sex via exclusion of individuals that identify as intersex.  Although gender is distinct from sexual orientation and the experiences of sexual minorities are generally qualitatively different than those of gender minorities, results are often generalized to the entire LGBTQIA+ population (e.g., House, Van Horn, Coppeans, & Stepleman, 2011; Whitfield, Walls, Langenderfer-Magruder, & Clark, 2014).

Future Directions

Though it may be difficult to conduct research without any aspects of WEIRD methodology, increasing awareness and disclosure of the ways in which one’s study might be affected by WEIRD biases would allow for more transparency and clarity throughout the field as a whole, strengthening the foundation of applications for practice.  While it is standard practice to describe one’s sample, it is far less common for researchers to disclose their own sociodemographic variables and these variables potential influence on the research at hand.  Burnes et al. (2016) provide one example of appropriately disclosing researcher characteristics that may influence their research perspective on the experiences of survivors of trauma that identify as transgender, as well as the impact of these characteristics on their methodology and interpretation of results.

In conclusion, participants should not be assumed to be homogenous regardless of minority status.  Research that allows participants to identify as they do in daily life rather than providing researcher-determined categories and that assesses within-group differences, both culturally and individually, is of critical importance.  Rather than grouping individuals as “African Americans,” “Asian Americans,” or “Latinx/Hispanic,” researchers should instead avoid categorizing participants as such entirely if at all possible.  If such grouping is deemed necessary for the research question, assessment of additional factors such as nationality, country of origin, generational status, language spoken at home, and religion is critical to the rejection of stereotypes. By doing so, researchers can identify the sources of patterns across race rather than concluding or asserting race as the pattern itself.  Race and ethnicity should be assessed distinctly rather than as synonymous constructs.  In addition, research on sexual and gender minorities should separately analyze the experiences of all combinations of sexual orientation and gender identity.  The simple inclusion of individuals that identify as bisexual, asexual, or pansexual would strengthen the literature, as these individuals are typically excluded.  Similarly, research in individuals identifying as trans* should differentiate between male-to-female, female-to-male, non-binary, gender fluid, etc., as well as stage of transition for the two former identifications.

Furthermore, studies incorporating qualitative measures are essential to assess the factors deemed by the individual and their culture to be relevant.  When a qualitative portion is not possible, a more comprehensive approach is crucial.  In addition to “standard” (per US measures) events such as abuse and car accidents, items related to individual and systemic discrimination and intrapersonal, secondary/vicarious, and in-group trauma should also be included.  Future research also needs to incorporate assessment of resilience in addition to risk, including general protective factors (e.g., social support) as well as culturally- and individually-relevant factors (e.g., degree of outness, identity centrality and salience, the role of religion).

Finally, and what precedes the aforementioned suggestions, is awareness.  The slang term “woke,” meaning raising an individual’s awareness of important issues, particularly those surrounding social justice, has recently gained popularity and entered into mainstream culture (Woke, Merriam-Webster, 2008).  This term has been frequently used not only to signal one’s own awareness of the dominant paradigm but also to call on others to raise their attention (e.g., “stay woke”).  Thus, perhaps the most important direction to be taken as researchers is indeed to “stay woke,” as doing so naturally creates the space for critical perspectives that are necessary to judiciously evaluate research and limit the influences of WEIRD biases.




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Cathryn Richmond completed her Master’s degree in Psychological Sciences from James Madison University and is currently pursuing her doctorate in Developmental Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.  She has training in a variety of disciplines including trauma research, clinical neuropsychology, assessment and measurement, and data management.  Her current research interests broadly relate to risk in the context of resilience, particularly in regard to stressful experiences and coping with traumatic stress, and she is committed to expanding culturally sensitive research in underserved populations experiencing marginalization and oppression including examination of the way in which the intersectionality of power structures influence resilience.

Selamawit Hailu received her bachelor’s degree in psychology and cognitive science from the University of Virginia and is currently a Clinical Psychology graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research interests broadly include ethnic-racial identity development, cultural adaptations of evidence-based interventions for youth anxiety, depression, and trauma, and the dissemination and implementation of evidence-based interventions. Aside from her research interests, she has training in racial reconciliation, behavioral health within integrated primary care settings, and restorative justice practices.