Quantcast

«

»

Mar 01 2013

We are the WEIRD

Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, that is. One of the common complaints about evolutionary psychology is that it claims to be addressing evolved human universals, but when you look at the data sets, they are almost always drawn from the same tiny pool of outliers, Western undergraduate students enrolled in psychology programs, and excessively extrapolated to be representative of Homo sapiens — when we’re actually a very peculiar group.

How peculiar? A paper by Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan, “The Weirdest People in the World”, tries to measure that…and by nearly every standard they looked at, the wealthy inhabitants of democratic western societies are not exactly normal (that is, they’re far from average in ways both good and bad and value neutral).

Who are the people studied in behavioral science research? A recent analysis of the top journals in six sub‐disciplines of Psychology from 2003‐2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and a full 96% of subjects were from Western industrialized countries, specifically North America, Europe, Australia, and Israel (Arnett 2008). The make‐up of these samples appears to largely reflect the country of residence of the authors, as 73% of first authors were at American universities, and 99% were at universities in Western countries. This means that 96% of psychological samples come from countries with only 12% of the world’s population. Put another way, a randomly selected American is 300 times more likely to be a research participant in a study in one of these journals than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.

It’s even worse: “67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses”.

That wouldn’t be so bad if we were examining traits that were truly universal, or if we had a better understanding of exactly what properties were unusual and derived. Fruit flies are also real oddball organisms, but we can still learn a lot from taking them apart…as long as we don’t simply pretend that people and mice and beetles and clams are all just like flies. Lab rats have their place, but understanding the bigger picture needs more diversity.

So it is possible that maybe the results aren’t significantly biased by sampling error if there weren’t much variation anyway. Unfortunately for the psychological universalists, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The paper describes many differences between cultures, some of which one might be willing to argue are fairly superficial: some societies have homosexual activities as an important step in the rituals of becoming a man, for instance, and while many of us might find that uncomfortable, we can see a range of sexual preferences even within the WEIRD group. But others violate properties I’ve always taken for granted.

mueller-lyer

For instance, in neuroscience and psychology you’ll see this optical illusion all the time, the Mueller-Lyer illusion. The two lines are exactly the same length, but we perceive them as longer or shorter depending on the direction of the arrows.

Wait, “we”? Yeah, I do, most of you readers probably do too, and every time I’ve seen this illusion in the text books it’s presented as a fait accompli — but of course you will see this dramatic illustration of how the brain processes visual stimuli!

Only, they don’t. The magnitude of the effect is culture-dependent. In a series of tests in which the lines were adjusted until the viewer saw them as equal in length, different groups saw different things. The WEIRD group needed one line extended a great deal before they saw them as equal; the African San scarcely saw the illusion at all.

ml_cultures
Mueller‐Lyer Results for Segall et. al.’s cross‐cultural project. PSE is the percentage that segment ‘a’ must be longer than ‘b’ before individuals perceive them as equal.

The paper goes through multiple examples of this kind of variable phenomena: economic decision making (not everyone thinks like a trader), biological reasoning (Western people are marked by a deep ignorance of other organisms), spatial cognition (how do you see yourself and others relative to landmarks?), and the individual’s relationship to society. They also identify properties that do seem to be common across populations…and that’s the nub of the argument here.

No one is denying that there are almost certainly deep commonalities between all members of our species. But there are also phenomena that are much more fluid, and sometimes those phenomena are so deeply ingrained in contemporary culture that we assume that they must be human universals — we assume our personal differences and biases must be shared by all right-thinking, decent human beings. But you can’t know that until you look, and your personal prejudices do not count as data.

It takes hard work to identify the real common threads of our humanity, and it can be rewarding to see which bits of our identity are actually superficial, not an essential part of our generally human self. The authors advocate more care in interpretation and wider empirical research.

Many radical versions of cultural relativity deny any shared commonalities in human psychologies across populations. To the contrary, we expect humans from all societies to share, and probably share substantially, basic aspects of cognition, motivation, and behavior. As researchers who see much value in applying evolutionary thinking to psychology and behavior, we have little doubt that if a full accounting were taken across all domains among peoples past and present, that the number of similarities would indeed be large, as much ethnographic work suggests (e.g., Brown 1991)—ultimately, of course, this is an empirical question. Thus, our thesis is not that humans share few basic psychological properties or processes; rather we question our current ability to distinguish these reliably developing aspects of human psychology from more developmentally, culturally, or environmentally contingent aspects of our psychology given the disproportionate reliance on WEIRD subjects. Our aim here, then, is to inspire efforts to place knowledge of such universal features of psychology on a firmer footing by empirically addressing, rather than dismissing or ignoring, questions of population variability.

Perspective is needed. The ridiculous bias in most psychology studies might be unavoidable — not every undergraduate psychology can afford to fly to deepest Uganda or the Chinese hinterlands to broaden the cultural background of their research — but we could at least have greater caution in claiming breadth. I thought this suggestion was amusing:

Arnett (2008) notes that psychologists would surely bristle if journals were renamed to more accurately reflect the nature of their samples (e.g., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of American Undergraduate Psychology Students). They would bristle, presumably, because they believe that their findings would broadly generalize. Of course, there are important exceptions to this general tendency as some researchers have assembled a broad database to provide evidence for universality (e.g., Buss 1989, Daly & Wilson 1988, Tracy & Matsumoto 2008).

I don’t think the specificity of that journal title would diminish its interest, and it would be a heck of a lot more accurate. We already have specialty science journals for Drosophila, zebrafish, nematodes, etc., so why not give the American Undergraduate Psychology Students the recognition they deserve as a standard model organism?

(via The Pacific Standard)

73 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    mythbri

    Clearly this means there was an evolutionary advantage to majoring in psychology. Or at least to make psychology a required credit.

  2. 2
    David Marjanović

    Drosophila

    Sophophora!
    *dives under desk*
    </ICZN troll>

  3. 3
    moarscienceplz

    not every undergraduate psychology can afford to fly to deepest Uganda or the Chinese hinterlands

    But maybe they could find a Ugandan or a Chinese to collaborate with. At work, I’m collaborating with people in France, Taiwan, and Italy on a daily basis.

  4. 4
    David Marjanović

    Only, they don’t. The magnitude of the effect is culture-dependent. In a series of tests in which the lines were adjusted until the viewer saw them as equal in length, different groups saw different things. The WEIRD group needed one line extended a great deal before they saw them as equal; the African San scarcely saw the illusion at all.

    …And the paper that presented this research is Segall et al. 1966. It’s a book; maybe that’s why so few people have evidently read it.

  5. 5
    ChasCPeterson

    One of the common complaints about evolutionary psychology is that it claims to be addressing evolved human universals, but when you look at the data sets, they are almost always drawn from the same tiny pool of outliers, Western undergraduate students enrolled in psychology programs

    This is a valid criticism of all disciplines of psychology (except geriatric and abnormal, I guess). Undergraduates enrolled in Intro to Psych courses are usually required to participate in departmental research as subjects.

    The authors advocate more care in interpretation and wider empirical research.

    Really stickin’ their necks out there!

  6. 6
    Brandon

    I think this is a really important critique; it applies broadly to all psychology, not just evolutionary psychology, right? I suppose maybe neuropsych can avoid this particular criticism by being more mechanistic, but it seems like every other sort of psychology is going to be burdened with the same basic problem.

  7. 7
    Enkidum

    To provide unnecessary information that will probably identify myself more than I’m comfortable with, I’ve taken an excellent course on modelling the evolution of social behaviour with Henrich, Heine has helped me leap through various hoops to get some tricky research ethics stuff approved, and Norenzayan’s my thesis external. (As a matter of fact, I brought this paper up on these boards last year or maybe even the year before when I was debating evo psych with someone.)

    At any rate I think this provides the clearest example of what’s wrong with a lot of evo psych assumptions. Not that there’s anything wrong with the general idea that there are psychological universals, but that you have to do a lot more work than pretty much anyone has ever done in order to say what those universals are.

    And, to be fair, I don’t think we generally want journals of undergraduate american psychology, we want journals of psychology where the limitations are much more explicitly acknowledged (at the very least) and addressed by comparative cross-cultural work (when possible).

  8. 8
    PZ Myers

    The paper doesn’t single out evo psych. It applies its criticisms to all of psychology.

  9. 9
    ChasCPeterson

    The paper doesn’t single out evo psych.

    I know. You’re the one who did that.

  10. 10
    Enkidum

    @Chas #5 – the paper isn’t about evo psych per se, it’s about psych in general.

  11. 11
    ChasCPeterson

    You can probably see where I explicitly responded to Prof. Myers, not the paper.

  12. 12
    David Marjanović

    the African San scarcely saw the illusion at all

    The text even says “the San’s PSE value cannot be distinguished from zero” and later adds: “It’s not merely that the strength of the illusory effect varies across populations – the effect cannot be detected in two populations.”

  13. 13
    Cuttlefish

    Part of this, I would venture, is due to our brain fetish in much of psychology; we look to “how the brain works” or controls us, or does this or that, but only rarely look at “how our experience shaped our brain to do X”, which of course is how brains actually work in the real world. Psychologists love to look at the here and now of brain activity, but since they cannot reasonably look at the past history of their lab subjects over the past couple or few decades, they simply ignore that aspect.

    Add to this the notion that our language shapes our interpretation of “what we are thinking”–that fully verbal adults (the typical subjects of study) are contaminated by their cultural views of perception and cognition (having been taught to label their subjective experience by people who had no access to it) without any way of knowing that this contamination has taken place (we do not feel ourselves think, as we have no sensory neurons in the brain itself).

    Like I said, I really hate the brain sometimes. http://freethoughtblogs.com/cuttlefish/2013/02/18/there-are-times-i-just-hate-the-brain/ (just realizing, in that verse I have omitted a huge chunk of important material–not just the environment, but the history of interaction with that environment, shapes our consciousness.)

  14. 14
    carlie

    I saw that paper a few days ago, and it was one of those “wait, doesn’t everybody already know this???” moments.

  15. 15
    Draken

    Heinrich Heine, wow!
    Oh wait, there’s a sneaky comma, and besides, its’s Henrich.

  16. 16
    Nick Gotts

    ChasCPeterson@9,

    Maybe that’s because EPers are the ones making a huge song and dance about how they are uncovering psychological universals.

  17. 17
    Brandon

    I saw that paper a few days ago, and it was one of those “wait, doesn’t everybody already know this???” moments.

    I think it’s one of those things that everyone who’s interested in the topic knows, but needs to be reminded of occasionally. Maybe it’s just me that needs the reminder and I’m just projecting though.

  18. 18
    David Marjanović

    I think it’s one of those things that everyone who’s interested in the topic knows, but needs to be reminded of occasionally.

    Also, the paper is from 2009.

  19. 19
    ChasCPeterson

    Maybe that’s because EPers are the ones making a huge song and dance about how they are uncovering psychological universals.

    Well, that’s what they’re trying to do, yeah. What would you have them sing and dance about?

  20. 20
    unclefrogy

    Ever since I took my first introduction to anthropology 101 class I have been suspicious to some of the things I have read especially in pop psych. about what humans are like. Glad to see that someone has actually taken the time to examine the studies and check for cultural bias.
    You would expect that kind of bias in political and religious (I hesitate adding philosophy here) thinking about humans but to see it in what calls itself science is kind of sad.

    uncle frogy

  21. 21
    ChasCPeterson

    For example, I’d bet money that the studies featured in Jadehawk’s recent front-paged post on the psychology of harrassment were also conducted on WEIRD undergrads.

    This is similar to self-reporting, which people similarly use as a putative deal-breaker for studies that reach conclusions that make them uncomfortable while conveniently ignoring it if they like the results. And these preferences are generally based (at least in part) on political ideology.

  22. 22
    Sastra

    In a series of tests in which the lines were adjusted until the viewer saw them as equal in length, different groups saw different things. The WEIRD group needed one line extended a great deal before they saw them as equal; the African San scarcely saw the illusion at all.

    I looked at the graph. Well, that does it. I grew up in Evanston: I am now officially quintessentially WEIRD.

    Interesting paper. The concept of human rights is grounded in assumptions concerning ‘universals’ — basic needs and desires shared among all people regardless of variations in culture. I suspect they can still be discovered; you’re just going to have to generalize the hell out of them.

  23. 23
    David Marjanović

    I’d bet money that the studies featured in Jadehawk’s recent front-paged post on the psychology of harrassment were also conducted on WEIRD undergrads.

    To be fair, that post was clearly written with mostly WEIRD people in mind, in particular WEIRD Internet users (which is most of them).

  24. 24
    David Marjanović

    Well, that does it. I grew up in Evanston: I am now officially quintessentially WEIRD.

    Congratulations!

    I suspect they can still be discovered; you’re just going to have to generalize the hell out of them.

    The authors are very careful to state they don’t claim there are no universals; all they’re saying is not everything that has been implied to be a universal is one.

  25. 25
    klortho

    If this post is intended as a criticism of the field of evolutionary psychology, I think it is off the mark.

    It’s important to distinguish between good research and bad, the same is true in any field — Sturgeon’s Law applies. Several people, in posts I’ve read recently on this topic, have pointed out that if you’re going to criticize the whole field, then your criticisms need to apply to the papers, conclusions, and consensus at the top of that field. But, the better EP articles and books that I’ve read directly address the concern brought up in this post. *Of course*, if you hypothesize that something is a human universal, it’s important to gather cross-cultural and historical evidence. The claims about human universals that I’ve read about all have that kind of evidence to back it up. Hence, this blog post seems to me to be a bit of a straw-man.

  26. 26
    ChasCPeterson

    To be fair, that post was clearly written with mostly WEIRD people in mind

    true.

  27. 27
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    The claims about human universals that I’ve read about all have that kind of evidence to back it up. Hence, this blog post seems to me to be a bit of a straw-man.

    With only vague claims by you, your straw-man statement is in question. Why not cite a couple of articles/books you think backs up your claim?

  28. 28
    unclefrogy

    klortho
    you must be either lucky and or highly selective in what you read. according to what has been said here about the survey of the studies stated above.
    uncle frogy

  29. 29
    John Horstman

    Yay! Over-generalization is one of the biggest failings I see in research analysis in the social sciences (physical sciences tend to have a different set of common perspective-biased failings). Thankfully, the development of disciplines that critique extant institutional biases (I’m most familiar with Women’s Studies/Gender Studies, Global Studies, and Queer Theory) is starting to have some much-needed impact. Even when one cannot see any possible way that a given research population could bias the outcomes, it’s important to restrict generalized claims to only the bounds of the population actually studied. If your study population didn’t include Amazon aboriginal people, for example, don’t claim universal generalizability (yes, this means it’s nearly impossible to establish universals; deal with it).

  30. 30
    daniellavine

    The claims about human universals that I’ve read about all have that kind of evidence to back it up. Hence, this blog post seems to me to be a bit of a straw-man.

    Feel free to cite some of that evidence at any time.

  31. 31
    Richard Smith

    I recall hearing that Irene Pepperberg had hoped to test Alex with various optical illusions to determine whether he “saw” them the way people did. Not sure if that will go (or has already gone) on with any of their other birds.

  32. 32
    Doug Hudson

    “Evolutionary Psychology” is pseudo-science, plain and simple. Until science has a far better grasp of how the brain functions and generates consciousness, there is simply no way to adequately demonstrate an evolutionary source for an aspect of human behavior, especially given how strong an impact socialization has on human cognition.

    Of course, most universities and medical centers have all sorts of “woo” in their curriculum (“integrative medicine” anyone?), so its not surprising that “evo psych” has its supporters, despite the massively obvious flaws.

  33. 33
    twincats

    67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses

    When I took Psych 101 lo these many years ago, we were given to understand that the reason we (the Psych 101 and 102 students) were being compelled to “volunteer” for the grad students’ studies was mainly for them to practice the technique of building viable and meaningful experiments on a handy and bountiful cohort. It never occurred to me that anyone was conducting groundbreaking research this way.

  34. 34
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    But, the better EP articles and books that I’ve read

    …such as?

  35. 35
    strange gods before me ॐ

    Huh. Didn’t everybody see this back in 2010? Or The Geography of Thought before it?

    Anyway, I’ll leave something newer:

    “In this study, we show that liberals think WEIRDer than conservatives.”

  36. 36
    Julien Rousseau

    klortho:

    the better EP articles and books that I’ve read directly address the concern brought up in this post. *Of course*, if you hypothesize that something is a human universal, it’s important to gather cross-cultural and historical evidence. The claims about human universals that I’ve read about all have that kind of evidence to back it up.

    Could you please reference what you consider to be the best such paper? that way we can have a look at “the top of that field”.

    It would go a long way toward giving substance to your assertion of strawmanning, though it still would be wrong as PZ agrees that there can be good evolutionary psychology:
    PZ Myers:

    I really had this plan to start off by conceding that some of EP’s premises are fine, there is some promising work to be done

    I would also disagree that Sturgeon’s law should apply to anything in science as peer review is supposed to act as a filter to weed out such crap so that you should have much less of it.

    If your peer review filter is so broken that the signal to noise ratio in your published literature is as bad as in an environment without such a filter then it seems to me that you’ve got a huge problem.

  37. 37
    Ichthyic

    “Evolutionary Psychology” is pseudo-science, plain and simple.

    this is ignorance, plain and simple.

    but then, evidently most here don’t care about the subject, or its history, just the implications from the worst of it.

  38. 38
    Ichthyic

    Could you please reference what you consider to be the best such paper? that way we can have a look at “the top of that field”.

    before you ask that of anyone else, ask it of yourself.

    are you versed in ANY scientific field?

    name a paper you consider to be seminal in that field, that has untouchable experimental design and flawless statistical analysis, and reaches for nothing extra in the discussion section.

    I’ve studied and published in animal behavior for over 30 years, and actually can’t name a single paper in any animal behavior journal that fits the bill.

    I’d say Endler’s work on guppies in Trinidad comes pretty close, but there were problems even there.

    somehow, it didn’t force me to the conclusion that behavioral ecology is a pseudoscience.

    huh.

  39. 39
    Ichthyic

    ….just to show how this bias is starting to incorrectly have a negative impact on how scientific endeavors should be examined, I give you PZ earlier in the week, saying this:

    “Wow. Talk about major failure. ” in response to the article published on foxp2 in rats.
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/02/23/not-to-mention-the-excessive-reductionism/

    but was it the article that had the failure, or one of the authors in speaking to the media about it?

    yeah. It wasn’t an issue of “reductionism” even.

    if you read the article, the study and conclusions were reasonable based on what they had. It was actually the MEDIA report that got PZ all up in a tizzy.

    before you decide to trash all of evo psych, which really is just an extension of sociobiology, you need to actually separate out the impacts discussed in the media, with what people are doing, and why.

    I’ve said this before, but I’m hoping it is starting to become clearer now?

    this is NOT doing science any favors, just like it didn’t when sociobiology was hashed out in the media.

  40. 40
    Ichthyic

    The paper doesn’t single out evo psych. It applies its criticisms to all of psychology.

    the problem is, with this view you don’t go FAR ENOUGH.

    you could say the same thing about ANY experiment that samples a subset of a population.

    are you ready to do that?

  41. 41
    Julien Rousseau

    name a paper you consider to be seminal in that field, that has untouchable

    Sorry but “top of that field” is not synonymous with “untouchable experimental design and flawless statistical analysis, and reaches for nothing extra in the discussion section”, scientists are human too, so please don’t put your words in klortho’s mouth (figuratively speaking).

    From Klortho’s post I took it that what he meant by “top of that field” was what I already quoted:

    if you hypothesize that something is a human universal, it’s important to gather cross-cultural and historical evidence. The claims about human universals that I’ve read about all have that kind of evidence to back it up.

    Not what you decided it meant.

    FYI, “top of F” does not mean to have x,y and z characteristic. The top of a bull’s shit, the top of a hill and the top of everest are all the top of their repective pile, regardless of how high or low, how good or bad they are.

    Klortho is the one who want to talk about the top of that field so why would it be inappropos to ask him what he sees as the top of the field? It’s rather standard procedure to ask someone what they think is the best case for their position, especially when they feel it has been strawmanned.

    I’ve studied and published in animal behavior for over 30 years, and actually can’t name a single paper in any animal behavior journal that fits the bill.

    Given that Klortho was talking about human universals I don’t know what animal behavior* has got to do with it.

    But as pointed earlier, even if the best paper/book in your field does not clear your lofty bar does not mean that it is not at the top of your field.

    For example:

    I’d say Endler’s work on guppies in Trinidad comes pretty close, but there were problems even there.

    Seems to be at the top of your field.

    somehow, it didn’t force me to the conclusion that behavioral ecology is a pseudoscience.

    You might have mistaken me with Doug Hudson.

    * except in the sense that humans are animals.

  42. 42
    Jean-François Gariépy

    I do not consider myself an evolutionary psychologist but thought the current discussion might benefit from some references. First, what PZ describes is true in that most subjects in psychology studies are recruited around Universities and end up being undergraduate/graduate students. However this is not always a problem, and in those instances where it is a problem and we want to know more, there are possibilities to extend the studies to many cultures.

    For instance, a series of studies has been published about how culture, ecology and demography influence the behavior of individuals in games used as psychological experiments:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/108/35/14426.long
    http://www.pnas.org/content/109/2/E32.long

    One interested in a more developed description of the cultural variations in social psychology and economics experiments might want to consult the book by Herbert Gintis, The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory and the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences.

    Public good games, Ultimatum games and anti-social punishment are among the experiments in which there is indeed cultural variation. But these things are being studied, data is being acquired and debate exists on the causes of those variations. Psychologists do not necessarily think that the study they perform locally around their University necessarily applies to every human being. And if some do, then they are mistaken – but no field of science doesn’t have people that are mistaken. The authors I cited certainly don’t make that mistake as they are specifically interested in the variations that occur across cultures.

    In any case, scientists have for a long time accepted the use of models to at least explore some biological/psychological questions, so the use of undergraduates in studies designed to explore some questions in psychology can be justified in many cases, simply for practical reasons. In the field of biology, most of scientific works are made using less than a dozen species – flies, C. elegans, rats, mice, some frogs, zebrafish and some species of non-human primates constitute the vast majority of laboratory animals.

    There are potential variations between the species used and other species that are not being used. There are also potential genetic differences within populations that might not be well represented in the laboratory animals we use. There may also be ecological variations – the regular feeding schedule of laboratory animals for instance, might drastically change their physiology compared to natural environments. But then it becomes a matter of the question at hand and the claims of the study. Should a neurobiologist working on the neural networks controlling locomotion in a species of insect necessarily cover all of the potential genetic variation and even some other species to confirm his findings ? It certainly is easy to say yes, and no one would oppose to obtaining that knowledge for free. However, knowing that testing all of these things would make science expenses grow gigantically and make many studies virtually impossible both in terms of time and funding, one has to recognize that knowing one sample is better than knowing no sample at all.

    The same reflection applies to psychology. Sure, we all wish we could sample everything, but we can’t. So there are studies out there made on subsamples of humanity and there is no problem with that unless a claim of universality is made. In some instances researchers are interested in extending their claims and they start acquiring data on different populations. This has been going on for quite some time and operates based on costs/benefits considerations that also apply to many other fields of science, including biology.

    Should biology journals publishing laboratory studies also change their name by adding “of a dozen species”? Of course, I’m raising the question provocatively and not seriously, I am myself a biologist.

  43. 43
    larrylyons

    Its an old criticism. but think about it, some principles are universal. A brain is a brain, a set of neurons activating are still a set of activated neurons. Other studies of personality, such as confirmation of the Big 5 personality factors have been conducted across nations and cultures and have found similar results. Just the same with such areas as hypnotizability, that appears to be a near universal, with similar distributions found across different nations and cultures. My own research in attentional processing is the same, approximately the same distribution have been found in samples in South Africa, here in the US, in Canada and Poland.

  44. 44
    vaiyt

    think about it, some principles are universal.

    The OP is about how finding out which ones is the trick.

  45. 45
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    My own research in attentional processing is the same, approximately the same distribution have been found in samples in South Africa, here in the US, in Canada and Poland.

    Also, showing us links to literature. Funny how unevidenced claims supersede links…

  46. 46
    ChasCPeterson

    I don’t know what animal behavior has got to do with it.

    *shakes head slowly*

  47. 47
    klortho

    Feel free to cite some of that evidence at any time.

    Wait, why should the burden be on me? PZ here is impuning the whole field. Back when he introduced this series of posts, he said he tried to find some good articles, but couldn’t — he had problems with all of them. So, I was looking forward to more specific criticisms of papers that were in general high regard by people in the field. I haven’t read anything like that in his posts, and this one is a prime example. Rather than start with a purportedly good paper or widely held contention, and point out it’s flaws, this post is a review of a paper that levels a very general criticism of research efforts in an even broader field.
    Let me be clear about what I’m saying. I’m not suggesting that the Henrich et al paper is flawed; I’d agree that they have a point to make. No doubt a lot of researchers are too quick to generalize their findings after they’ve found something in a WEIRD cohort. But what’s missing from PZ’s argument are specific examples of cases where claims were made of the universality of a trait, that was later shown to be false. And, it’s not good enough to just find one or two. Of course there will be claims that later turn out to be wrong. That’s the nature of science. But PZ is denigrating the whole field, so for this argument to have weight, he’s got to show that such a significant number of claims of universality are suspect, that you can’t trust any of them. So, why do you ask me for evidence in support of my argument, instead of asking him?
    That said, one book which I read recently which was very thoroughly researched, described the human universal of war, was the aptly named, “War in Human Civilization”, by Azar Gat. I’d also highly recommend Steven Pinker’s latest “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, which touches on a lot of evolutionary psychology topics.

    It would go a long way toward giving substance to your assertion of strawmanning, though it still would be wrong as PZ agrees that there can be good evolutionary psychology:
    PZ Myers:

    I really had this plan to start off by conceding that some of EP’s premises are fine, there is some promising work to be done

    Ahem … you seemed to have left out a bit of that quote (was it intentional?):

    … but every time I sat down to extract those optimistic views from a published paper, I’d end up gnashing my teeth and stabbing it with a red pen repeatedly.

    I would also disagree that Sturgeon’s law should apply to anything in science as peer review is supposed to act as a filter to weed out such crap so that you should have much less of it.

    Peer review is badly broken; it is a problem in every field of science. And, in every field, a lot of crap gets published. It doesn’t mean science isn’t progressing.
    Jean-François Gariépy wrote:

    First, what PZ describes is true in that most subjects in psychology studies are recruited around Universities and end up being undergraduate/graduate students. However this is not always a problem

    This is a very good point, too. As the Confer et al paper describes, a lot of primary research starts out with a hypothesis about how a trait might have been influenced by evolution: “The researcher first formulates a hypothesis about an evolved psychological mechanism and then generates testable predictions about the attributes …” It’s not inappropriate that the first test of such a hypothesis be conducted on the most convenient group of subjects. If you want to prove that all apples are red, you’d look at the apples close at hand first, and if you happen to see any green ones, then you can throw the hypothesis out without further ado. If the hypothesis passes that first test, then it would be time to broaden the study group. Again, I’m not saying that I think that authors of research never overgeneralize, but I haven’t read anything here that convinces me that the field as a whole hasn’t come up with some very significant results.
    Which reminds me that I also wanted to mention this quote from PZ’s post above:

    It takes hard work to identify the real common threads of our humanity, and it can be rewarding to see which bits of our identity are actually superficial, not an essential part of our generally human self. The authors advocate more care in interpretation and wider empirical research.

    … we expect humans from all societies to share, and probably share substantially, basic aspects of cognition, motivation, and behavior. As researchers who see much value in applying evolutionary thinking to psychology and behavior, we have little doubt that if a full accounting were taken across all domains among peoples past and present, that the number of similarities would indeed be large, …

    So, this is saying that Evolutionary Psychology is worthwhile and good, right? And, just that, maybe the researchers need to be a bit more careful? Fair enough, I’d say.

  48. 48
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Wait, why should the burden be on me?

    Easy, PZ has an open invitation for those who have references to what he calls “good” EP, to post the links here so he can check them out. Those posted to date don’t meet his criteria of “good” EP. Plus, as a scientist, if you are one, you are wrong until you evidence yourself right. Never expect us to take your word for anything…

  49. 49
    Azuma Hazuki

    I’d been wondering about something along these lines, concerning the Kinsey Reports: I’d heard that Kinsey’s research cohort was basically this same WEIRD group, and as such might have skewed the results toward there appearing to be way, way more gays than there actually are. Can anyone comment on this?

  50. 50
    klortho

    Nerd of Redhead:

    Never expect us to take your word for anything…

    You’re applying this same standard to PZ Myers, right? Just checking.

  51. 51
    ChasCPeterson

    Nerd, have you yourself ever even once in the years you’ve been repeating yourself around here posted a link to anything? Because I can’t remember it.

  52. 52
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    Nerd, have you yourself ever even once in the years you’ve been repeating yourself around here posted a link to anything? Because I can’t remember it.

    Chas, I have linked to many an article over the years. You should know better if you really paid attention. In this case, I’m not making any claims, ergo, I have no need to evidence anything. Unlike you, or whoever else claims that there is good EP. The burden of evidence is upon you, and you know that. So, why aren’t you showing that?

  53. 53
    klortho

    Chas, I have linked to many an article over the years.

    I’m new here, and, I’m sure you’d be sympathetic if I said, that you shouldn’t expect me to take your word for anything …. Could you provide me with some links to comments where you linked to something?

  54. 54
    Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD

    Given the nature of this blog it would probably be just as easy for you to search for such posts by Nerd klortho.

  55. 55
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    I’m new here, and, I’m sure you’d be sympathetic if I said, that you shouldn’t expect me to take your word for anything

    Spoken like a true skeptic. Here for example. We get many first-time posters who think this blog is about exchanging opinions, not discussing the facts behind those opinions. They act totally flummoxed when asked for evidence.

  56. 56
    Julien Rousseau

    Me:

    I don’t know what animal behavior* has got to do with it.

    Chas:

    *shakes head slowly*

    From your response I gather that you took it to mean a much stronger statement than I intended. When I initially read Ichthyic’s statement:

    I’ve studied and published in animal behavior for over 30 years, and actually can’t name a single paper in any animal behavior journal that fits the bill.

    I thought that he meant something specific to the conversation by talking about animal behavior and thus made my answer, which I meant to be specific to the discussion, to ask him for what his point was.

    I did not mean it as the strong statement that you apparently took it from, which is hinted at by the footnote (the reference to which you elided) as it shows that I recognise that humans are animal.

    Still, I should have removed the statement as while composing my answer I understood that his mention of animal behavior was coincidental and due to it being his field and he could have made the same point with any scientific field.

    So I was right that his mention of that specific field had nothing to do with it but I was wrong with my initial impression that he meant it to have something specific to do with it (instead of being incidental).

    So I went back and modified my post to reflect that… except I forgot to remove the line reflecting my initial lack of understanding of his meaning.

    My bad, sorry for confusing you.

  57. 57
    Julien Rousseau

    klortho:

    That said, one book which I read recently which was very thoroughly researched, described the human universal of war, was the aptly named, “War in Human Civilization”, by Azar Gat.

    Thanks. Somebody else mentioned Mother Nature by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in a previous thread and it’s on order. Could you do the same with a paper (or maybe you did, if you consider the Confer et al paper to be such?) as they tend to be shorter than books (like another poster who gave a couple of links to psychology papers using some non WEIRD cohorts).

    Ahem … you seemed to have left out a bit of that quote (was it intentional?)

    Absolutely, I considered including it but as my point was that PZ agrees that there can be good evolutionary psychology it was a non sequitur that he doesn’t seem to have found some.

    I think most people agree with the premise of evolutionary psychology, that we are shaped by evolution and thus that our psychology will be too. This means that it is possible to have good evolutionary psychology, but it does not mean that we do actually have it.

    Think back to the time of alchemy. Somebody could know enough about chemical reactions to believe that there could be good alchemy but not find any such example until the field matured and transformed itself into chemistry.

    Now, before someone (hi Chas) jumps up and gets pissed off that I compared evolutionary psychology to alchemy, I’m not. I’m more saying that I got no bloody idea whether evolutionary psychology is closer to alchemy or chemistry in the comparison because both sides seem to be present (note: I know it’s a gross exaggeration, it’s an analogy, not a 1 to 1 mapping) each time the subject comes up because PZ criticises part of evolutionary psychology (assuming that his criticism is spot on it would be more or less the equivalent of criticising alchemy), proponents of evolutionary psychology come and say that he should not be looking at the worst but at the best of the field (the chemistry side) but the problem is:

    1. It tends to be hard (at least in the comment threads, PZ said he got references in emails) to get them to say which paper(s) they think represent the best of evolutionary psychology, which makes it harder to discuss it.

    2. So far PZ hasn’t found a paper that he considers to be good evolutionary psychology. He previously mentioned the Confer et al. paper as a bad one, for example.

    3. PZ wanted his next αEP article (note that this one is not part of the series) to be about a good example of evolutionary psychology, which grinds things to a halt.

    Watching from the sidelines it gets frustrating because I would much prefer PZ to find such a paper, write a blog post explaining what he thinks it does right and then write another post explaining his problems with another paper OR have him start with a critic of what he considers a bad paper and go from there, rather than have the current stalemate of:

    criticise bad EP->no you should look at good EP->Ok, example please->afte a while an example is given->example found wanting->return to start.

    Normally I wouldn’t have bothered asking you for what you think is the best example of an evolutionary psychology paper because it would just be another turn of the merry-go-round but as I don’t remember seeing your username before I thought it was worth it.

    Peer review is badly broken; it is a problem in every field of science. And, in every field, a lot of crap gets published. It doesn’t mean science isn’t progressing.

    But is it so badly broken that it makes no difference? Sturgeon was talking about science fiction, which doesn’t have peer review. Even if peer review is broken it still should be better than nothing.

    Also, peer review being broken does not mean that it is broken to the same degree in various fields. Do you think that peer review in evolutionary psychology works as well as peer review in other fields of biology? Worse? Better?

    Wait, why should the burden be on me?

    Read on.

    Again, I’m not saying that I think that authors of research never overgeneralize, but I haven’t read anything here that convinces me that the field as a whole hasn’t come up with some very significant results.

    Showing that the field as a whole hasn’t come up with some very significant results would necessitate criticising every evolutionary psychology paper.

    Showing that the field as a whole has come up with some very significant results would necessitate citing one such good evolutionary psychology paper.

    That’s why the burden should be on you.

    So, this is saying that Evolutionary Psychology is worthwhile and good, right? And, just that, maybe the researchers need to be a bit more careful? Fair enough, I’d say.

    Pretty much. One might quibble about “a bit”.

    Nerd of Redhead:

    Never expect us to take your word for anything…

    klortho:

    You’re applying this same standard to PZ Myers, right? Just checking.

    Yes. Nobody, not even PZ should expect people to take their word for it.

    Note that it doesn’t necessarily mean ask for evidence for every single claim, no matter how small. You might not ask for evidence because you agree with the claim (say, if someone claimed Nerd is frequently asking for evidence) or because the thing claimed is common enough not to need more substantiation than the assertion of the person (like “someone stole my car”*) or because the claim is inconsequential and you don’t care about it (“the sky is blue”).

    Nerd of Redhead:

    Chas, I have linked to many an article over the years.

    klortho:

    I’m new here, and, I’m sure you’d be sympathetic if I said, that you shouldn’t expect me to take your word for anything …. Could you provide me with some links to comments where you linked to something?

    I don’t know about many, but I can start with one were he linked to something:
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/02/24/a-canadian-poll-on-abortion/comment-page-1/#comment-569170

    *though the police and/or insurance might want to check the claim out. My acceptance of a claim does not bind others to accept it too, of course.

  58. 58
    Ichthyic

    top of that field

    actually, I never used that wording.

    In fact, that makes no sense at all.

    if a field is so small that there even IS a single paper that one could define as “top of the field”, then it’s likely a field nobody here has even heard of.

    look again at what I wrote, and the words I used.

    then we can talk.

  59. 59
    Ichthyic

    I’m more saying that I got no bloody idea whether evolutionary psychology is closer to alchemy or chemistry in the comparison

    well then, you have some library time to spend?

    this is exactly the problem with trying to hash science out in the popular media, and why anyone who takes science itself seriously doesn’t.

  60. 60
    Ichthyic

    I thought that he meant something specific to the conversation by talking about animal behavior and thus made my answer, which I meant to be specific to the discussion, to ask him for what his point was.

    no. I hope it’s at least clear I was using a simple example of a field I was very familiar with, it had nothing specific to do with the topic of the field for the purposes of my response.

  61. 61
    Ichthyic

    I’d also highly recommend Steven Pinker’s latest “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, which touches on a lot of evolutionary psychology topics.

    Ironically, in another of these threads on EP, I saw someone in the comments knocking Pinker for being an over-extending evopsych.

    no kidding.

  62. 62
    Ichthyic

    …following up on my statement at #40…

    why isn’t there a journal on the population biology and behavior of laboratory raised zebrafish in Minnesota?

    surely we don’t want to say that all populations of zebrafish are homogenous?

    I mean, even in the 19th century, developmental plasticity stimulated by varying environments was recognized (think: Midwife Toad), although at the time the poor gentleman who spent so long on that research concluded it meant it supported Lamarckism.

    recognized constraints are useful, but to say they don’t exist in EP is a reach.

  63. 63
    larrylyons

    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls
    ———-

    My own research in attentional processing is the same, approximately the same distribution have been found in samples in South Africa, here in the US, in Canada and Poland.

    Also, showing us links to literature. Funny how unevidenced claims supersede links…
    __________
    Some of my earlier research and that of others:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886997001359
    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00207148708416036
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ch.26/abstract
    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00207144.2010.499345
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ch.80/abstract
    As well as a meta-analysis I’ve done on the role of the Absorption construct.
    http://www.lyonsmorris.com/lyons/absStudy/index.htm

  64. 64
    Julien Rousseau

    actually, I never used that wording.

    If you did not mean:

    name a paper you consider to be seminal in that field, that has untouchable experimental design and flawless statistical analysis, and reaches for nothing extra in the discussion section.

    In response to:

    Could you please reference what you consider to be the best such paper? that way we can have a look at “the top of that field”.

    Then why did you write the former right after quoting the latter? Sound like a non sequitur.

    And if you did mean it as a response but consider your turn of phrase to be referring to a different thing than “the top of that field” then it sounds like a strawman. So which is it?

    if a field is so small that there even IS a single paper that one could define as “top of the field”, then it’s likely a field nobody here has even heard of.

    I’m only trying to ascertain what he considers to be what presents the strongest case, not trying to imply that there is only one such paper.

    look again at what I wrote, and the words I used.

    then we can talk.

    You were responding to me, used different words, got mad at them like I had said them and now are mad that I don’t use your words? I take it as a sign that despite quoting me you weren’t actually responding to me, so I guess you’re right, we can’t talk.

    well then, you have some library time to spend?

    Wouldn’t that require at least one good citation to get started? Isn’t it what I’ve asked for?

    Seems that you agree with me, then.

    no. I hope it’s at least clear I was using a simple example of a field I was very familiar with, it had nothing specific to do with the topic of the field for the purposes of my response.

    It was clear, and it’s my fault that I 1.didn’t catch it immediately and 2. forgot to remove that sentence after reworking my post when I got it.

    It’s just that afterwards Chas understood that WTF reaction to apply not just to my initial misunderstanding but as me claiming that animal behaviour has got nothing to do whatsoever with evolutionary psychology, which is a much stronger claim that I certainly did not intend to make.

  65. 65
    robro

    AlterNet has an article on this study here.

  66. 66
    robotczar

    This is first response ever. I would like to see a bit more reluctance of PZ to comment on social sciences as he expects physicists and psychologists to recognize their lack of understanding of biology. Moreover, PZ should be aware that like many college professors, he likely has little or formal training about human learning or how to teach. On the job training and experience is good, but it doesn’t necessarily make one an expert.

    In the post, two issues are raised. One is about external validity of (in this case) psycho-physiological studies. The limitations of using the most readily available group is well known. It is a major limiting problem for psychological studies, and like lack of random assignment, makes psychology difficult to study in comparison to say, biology. Appropriate warnings about which population the results apply to should be part of any valid report. But, science uses inference. Physicists do not check every bit of matter. Biologists do not test every species or individual.

    The other issue is about whether science should take a perspective about whether its most useful goal is to study human similarity or differences. I would argue that science benefits most and has the primary task of finding similarities. Those similarities are primary in forming theories that provide understanding for what we observe about human behavior. Unfortunately, popular American ideology likes to focus on how people are all difference and unique. My students all have this bias–we can’t really know the principles of human behavior because all people are different. So different that no principles apply to everyone or even to most people. People are too complex to explain. So, we have political and ideological pressure to push this belief. The pressure is perhaps most visible in the movement for multiculturalism, which is not based on scientific principles or evidence.

    To be sure, cultures differ and what they teach affects behavior. Sorting out what part of behavior is due to learning versus genes is a major task of psychology and that is not an easy task. But, we must be on guard to no let our liberal or ideological biases influence our thinking. Culture does not determine much about human behavior. Culture is learned which means it is subject to principles of learning. In fact the chart presented in the post shows that all the cultures did not see the lines as being equal thus confirming that the perceptual illusion is cross cultural. Variation in a subjective comparison involves more processes, some of which may be learned.

  67. 67
    ChasCPeterson

    I’m sorry that I cannot participate fully in the discussion here.
    The thing about animal behavior was prompted more by previous discussions than this one. I have observed that many critics of EP, even the most vociferous, are completely ignorant of the field’s theoretical foundation, most of which comes from ethology/behavioral ecology. (People who first learned about EP from sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and Identity Studiesists are, naturally, especially prone to this; such teachers and authors are themselves ignorant, inspired mostly by political ideology, and tend to poison the well on the subject pretty thoroughly. But anyway.) It’s not that people sit around trying to think of evolutionary stories about human behavior. They are (often; I won’t stand up for every article that somebody wants to call ‘EP’) testing rigorous and well-formulated theoretical hypotheses. The reason EPists seem to concentrate so heavily on sex differences, for example, is because there is a rich literature of pre-existing hypotheses and predictions from which to draw. For reasons discussed above, identifying ‘human universals’ is a much more difficult undertaking, and one that has to first differentiate between ancestral traits shared with other apes and/or primates, mammals, amniotes, vertebrates etc., on the one hand, and shared derived traits of the human lineage alone on the other. (A recent paper by Chomsky et al. argues pretty persuasively that language capacity and its underlying neural architecture qualify as one of the latter…link)

    I still maintain that it was basically dishonest of PZ to have made this post about EP (check, e.g., the tags). The first OP blockquote (a secondary reference to another article) mentions “the top journals in six sub‐disciplines of Psychology;” track down the reference and learn that Evolutionary was not one of the six sub-disciplines surveyed (although, contrary to my previous guess, Abnormal Psych was included, as was Developmental).

    Finally, it strikes me that PZ’s final paragraph is misguided. If there are specialized journals for research on Drosph Siphono those fruitflies, C. elegans and zebrafish it’s only because they have become such popular research subjects that there is a need for publication outlets for OK-to-mediocre stuff. I doubt anybody publishes in those journals (outside of husbandry studies or nutrition or whatever) who wouldn’t rather be publishing in a more general-interest outlet with greater readership and impact.
    But why are these particular species so popular? What’s the whole freaking point of model species? The ability to generalize the findings to humans (from mice) and/or animals in general (nematodes). Zebrafish are touted as ‘model vertebrates’ and there are many strong advantages in studying them, but the goal is always generalizability. You have to test that, though, by then doing comparative work. Why do expect Psychology to run any differently?

    Finally, to dispel the idea that EP (as opposed to some individual EPists) systematically ignores the problem of generalizing from WEIRD studies, I link this article from back in 1989: (pdf)
    They’re certainly aware of the issues. They’re not stupid people.

  68. 68
    ChasCPeterson

    oh, and I stand corrected about Nerd’s linkage habits (although it wasn’t peer-reviewed :-P)

  69. 69
    gillt

    ChasCPeterson:

    I doubt anybody publishes in those journals (outside of husbandry studies or nutrition or whatever) who wouldn’t rather be publishing in a more general-interest outlet with greater readership and impact.

    I generally agree with your other points, but obviously we would all rather be publishing in higher impact journals for all the obvious reasons.

    FYI: the journal Zebrafish is not geared toward husbandry and nutrition studies.
    http://www.liebertpub.com/zeb

  70. 70
    ChasCPeterson

    FYI: the journal Zebrafish is not geared toward husbandry and nutrition studies.

    Indeed not, but imo that would be a better use for a species-specific journal. It just sems to me that aiming your work only at other zebrafish people kind of defeats the purpose of studying a model species. Unless it’s species-specific stuff like techniques etc.
    But I came off more judgmental than I meant to. My stuff’s certainly not in <i.Nature either!

  71. 71
    David Marjanović

    I’d heard that Kinsey’s research cohort was basically this same WEIRD group,

    Of course it was.

    and as such might have skewed the results toward there appearing to be way, way more gays than there actually are.

    Why would sexual orientation depend on culture? Homosexuality has been observed in all vertebrate species that have been watched for long enough; IIRC, that’s more than 400 now.

  72. 72
    gillt

    Indeed not, but imo that would be a better use for a species-specific journal. It just sems to me that aiming your work only at other zebrafish people kind of defeats the purpose of studying a model species. Unless it’s species-specific stuff like techniques etc.
    But I came off more judgmental than I meant to. My stuff’s certainly not in <i.Nature either!

    This is true, but it’s also the case that zebrafish as a model organism span diverse fields in the life sciences, from developmental biology to pharmacology, so saying “zebrafish people” is a trivial grouping since they’re potentially so cross-disciplined, hence the need for a journal.

  73. 73
    gillt

    I’ve been adjusting my opinion of EvoPsych a bit recently. I used to be think it was bullshit all the way down, but the more I hear from say Pinker (who perhaps was the most convincing) to T. Ryan Gregory, PZ, Larry Moran, even Coyne the less impressed I am with the criticisms. Some of the lines of attack I’ve read on this website and others are nothing special, general criticisms (e.g., but, but, but they don’t even have a gene in mind!) that could be applied to all of psychology and some of animal behavior research. I want to know what makes Evo-Psych so original in its sins?

    Why not indict systematists on their historical over-reliance on character-based models of evolutionary history or even the glaring problems of single and even multi-locus analysis in resolving short branch lengths in deep time? Also, there’s this sometimes tendency of how science by scientists is discussed on the internet.

Comments have been disabled.