A fascinating article with many implications to explore: We Aren’t the World.
In 1995 a young anthropologist tried to do a popular social science experiment with the Machiguenga, an indigenous people who live north of Machu Picchu in the Amazon basin.
When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American.
The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences—particularly in economics and psychology—relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments. At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.
And so it came about, and that’s what’s fascinating and implication-full.
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.
Hmmyes but what if what you think is hardwiring is actually culture but culture so buried that it looks like hardwiring? That seems to be the issue here, if I’ve understood it correctly.
As Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries that had been refined and handed down through thousands of generations in ever more complex market economies. When people are constantly doing business with strangers, it helps when they have the desire to go out of their way (with a lawsuit, a call to the Better Business Bureau, or a bad Yelp review) when they feel cheated. Because Machiguengan culture had a different history, their gut feeling about what was fair was distinctly their own.
That’s the part I’m not sure I understand. Maybe they’re not sure they do either; maybe it’s a process. I’m not sure how psychological tendencies can be handed down (i.e. taught) such that they are universal in a particular culture (and not in others). Also thousands of generations isn’t right; market economies haven’t existed for thousands of generations.
Ethan Watters, the author, meets Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich for dinner to talk about their work.
I had to wonder whether describing the Western mind, and the American mind in particular, as weird suggested that our cognition is not just different but somehow malformed or twisted. In their paper the trio pointed out cross-cultural studies that suggest that the “weird” Western mind is the most self-aggrandizing and egotistical on the planet: we are more likely to promote ourselves as individuals versus advancing as a group.
That’s the part that makes me wonder too. The next thought is always the familiar worry about human rights – “Western” innovation, individualist, groups are happy, all that. Is it just my weird (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) Americanness that makes me think human rights matter and everyone should have them? Many people outside the “West” also think that but then maybe they’ve been contaminated by the “West.”
I don’t know. But psychology or no psychology, it is a fact that systems that don’t take a human rights approach allow some groups to flourish at the expense of others.
But if those others are fine with that, because of their non-weird psychology, maybe it doesn’t matter that they get the shaft?
Is it only my weirdness that makes me say no, it does matter?