There’s an interesting article in the National Post emergent from a recent study in _Brain and Behavioral Sciences_
The article, titled “The weirdest people in the world?”, appears in the current issue of the journal Brain and Behavioral Sciences. Dr. Henrich and co-authors Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan argue that life-long members of societies that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic — people who are WEIRD — see the world in ways that are alien from the rest of the human family. The UBC trio have come to the controversial conclusion that, say, the Machiguenga are not psychological outliers among humanity. We are.
“If you’re a Westerner, your intuitions about human psychology are probably wrong or at least there’s good reason to believe they’re wrong,” Dr. Henrich says…..
….Moreover, WEIRD people do not simply react to the world differently, according to the paper, they perceive it differently to begin with. Take the well-known Muller-Lyer optical illusion, which uses arrows to trick the viewer into thinking one line is longer than another, even if both are the same length. (See the diagram on this page.)
“No matter how many times you measure those lines, you can’t cause yourself to see them as the same length,” Dr. Henrich says. At least that’s true for a Westerner. For some hunter-gatherers, the Muller-Lyer lines do not cause an illusion. “You do this with foragers in the Kalahari [Desert] and they just see the lines as the same length.”
WEIRD people, the UBC researchers argue, have unusual ideas of fairness, are more individualistic and less conformist than other people. In many of these respects, Americans are the most “extreme” Westerners, especially young ones. And educated Americans are even more extremely WEIRD than uneducated ones.
“The fact that WEIRD people are the outliers in so many key domains of the behavioral sciences may render them one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about Homo sapiens,” the authors conclude. “If the goal of the research program is to shed light on the human condition, then this narrow, unrepresentative sample may lead to an uneven and incomplete understanding.”
In other words, we do not know what we thought we knew about the human mind. We only know about the mind of a particular, unusual slice of humanity.
The UBC researchers also found that 96% of behavioural science experiment subjects are from Western industrialized countries, which account for just 12% of the world’s population. Sixty-eight percent were Americans. The United States is dominant in the field of psychology, accounting for 70% of all journal citations, compared with 37% in chemistry. Undergraduate students are often used to stand in for the entire species.
“This is a serious problem because psychology varies across cultures and chemistry doesn’t,” says Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.
The paper argues that either many studies’ conclusions have to be retested on non-WEIRD cultural groups — a daunting proposition in terms of resources — or they must be understood to offer insight only into the minds of rich, educated Westerners.
If WEIRD people are indeed weird, it is the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that have made them so. In the example of the Muller-Lyer illusion, the UBC team hypothesizes that growing up in an industrial-era environment with plenty of 90-degree lines and carpentered edges led to WEIRD people’s sense of vision being susceptible to the deception.
“We live in this world with police and institutions and pre-packaged food, TV, the Internet, watches and clocks and calendars. Our heads are loaded with all this information for navigating those environments. So we should expect our brains to be distorted,” Dr. Henrich says.
This is one of those things I think most of us know and do not know simultaneously, or rather, know and do not adequately regard or consider. We see clearly the ways in which we have shaped our world, but less clearly how our world has shaped us.