Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Why Americans Might Not Be As Normal As We Think We Are

Photo Credit: Freddycat1
Nearly twenty years ago, UCLA anthropology grad student Joe Henrich decided to do among a behavioral experiment among the Machiguenga people of Peru. After doing this experiment, Henrich realized that most of the social science research that is done in order to help predict human behavior is actually quite culturally biased and is often based on North American and European cultural assumptions.

Pacific Standard reports on his findings in a lengthy, but intriguing article found here. Writer Ethan Watters comments:
"A modern liberal arts education gives lots of lip service to the idea of cultural diversity. It’s generally agreed that all of us see the world in ways that are sometimes socially and culturally constructed, that pluralism is good, and that ethnocentrism is bad. But beyond that the ideas get muddy. That we should welcome and celebrate people of all backgrounds seems obvious, but the implied corollary—that people from different ethno-cultural origins have particular attributes that add spice to the body politic—becomes more problematic. To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those culturally derived qualities might be. Challenge liberal arts graduates on their appreciation of cultural diversity and you’ll often find them retreating to the anodyne notion that under the skin everyone is really alike. 
If you take a broad look at the social science curriculum of the last few decades, it becomes a little more clear why modern graduates are so un-moored. The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Euro-centrism of their predecessors, albeit in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural imperialism. 
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. 
Henrich’s work with the ultimatum game was an example of a small but growing countertrend in the social sciences, one in which researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition. His new colleagues in the psychology department, Heine and Norenzayan, were also part of this trend. Heine focused on the different ways people in Western and Eastern cultures perceived the world, reasoned, and understood themselves in relationship to others. Norenzayan’s research focused on the ways religious belief influenced bonding and behavior. The three began to compile examples of cross-cultural research that, like Henrich’s work with the Machiguenga, challenged long-held assumptions of human psychological universality."
To read more background on Henrich's study and how it compares to other traditional forms of research, please click here.

(h/t to Sam Osterloh for the link.)

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