WEIRD Culture and Psychology


Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!

One of my colleagues at my place of vocation recently sent an article my way that I found very intriguing, and I wanted to recommend it to readers of Philosophy Matters.  Ethan Watters wrote about the psychological, anthropological, and economical studies of Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan.  These researchers from the University of British Columbia have been creating waves of controversy throughout a variety of disciplines by challenging the generalizability of the majority of empirical work in the social sciences.

So what’s the big deal?  Well, the overwhelming bulk of research studies involving people are conducted on those from the WEIRD cultural group: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.  Until Henrich and his comrades spearheaded additional studies, most psychologists just sort of assumed all the research done on this relatively small portion of the world applied to everyone.  I have to say that I personally encountered a lot of such talk during my undergraduate days in psychology.  I quite brazenly challenged a number of my professors about the overabundant (i.e., excessive) use of undergraduate students enrolled in general psychology classes as research subjects.  I occasionally received a few citations to back up their decisions, but I mostly saw signs of defensiveness and evasive tactics.  I admittedly am a skeptic’s skeptic, but I was never convinced.

Henrich’s initial work in this area was based on the psychology of decision making, so he decided to use a variant of the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) scenario.  Essentially, the PD is a game usually involving two people that gives participants either the choice of cooperating with the other player or competing against him/her.  Neither side typically knows what the other person will decide to do ahead of time.  If both players choose to cooperate, then they both gain a modest amount.  If both decide to compete against the other one, then they both get nothing.  However, if one person wants to cooperate while the other doesn’t, then the defector will gain even more than if both cooperate.  Many studies have shown that Americans will frequently cooperate in such games…as long as they haven’t been stiffed by the other player; Americans don’t mind chalking up a loss in order to punish those who have wronged them in their own minds.  “Experts” in the field assumed that this trait was universal and a part of evolutionary psychology, and consequently many textbooks in psychology and economics were written on the assumptions of these decision making principles.

But Henrich didn’t do his studies on Americans.  Instead, he first went to remote Peruvian tribes and then onward to fourteen other places like Indonesia and Tanzania.  What he found was astounding: WEIRD societies were the weird (i.e., atypical) ones.  Americans were in the minority in their decision making processes.  Henrich discovered how important the role of culture was in the psychological mechanism of decision making.  For example, some groups were from a society where people never turned down free money, and some were from a system where it was the norm to offer a large gift to strangers but refuse outside assistance themselves.  Additional studies have been done involving recognizing perceptional illusions.  Generally, WEIRD cultures suck at doing this compared to other societies in the world; the reason is hypothesized to be due to cultural and environmental factors.

Crazy, huh?  I’ll let Watters give you the summary of Henrich’s theory:

“The amount of knowledge in any culture is far greater than the capacity of individuals to learn or figure it all out on their own.  He suggests that individuals tap that cultural storehouse of knowledge simply by mimicking (often unconsciously) the behavior and ways of thinking of those around them.  We shape a tool in a certain manner, adhere to a food taboo, or think about fairness in a particular way, not because we individually have figured out that behavior’s adaptive value, but because we instinctively trust our culture to show us the way.”

Again, the implications of these findings are massive and exceptionally important.  Check out Watters’s summation of the ordeal:

“And here is the rub: the culturally shaped analytic/individualistic mind-sets may partly explain why Western researchers have so dramatically failed to take into account the interplay between culture and cognition.  In the end, the goal of boiling down human psychology to hardwiring is not surprising given the type of mind that has been designing the studies.  Taking an object (in this case the human mind) out of its context is, after all, what distinguishes the analytic reasoning style prevalent in the West.  Similarly, we may have underestimated the impact of culture because the very ideas of being subject to the will of larger historical currents and of unconsciously mimicking the cognition of those around us challenges our Western conception of the self as independent and self-determined.  The historical missteps of Western researchers, in other words, have been the predictable consequences of the WEIRD mind doing the thinking.”

I encourage readers to read Watters’s article, peruse Henrich et al.’s original article, or watch Henrich’s explanatory video.  You can also play a virtual game of the PD here.

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