Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan recently published a paper on The Weirdest People in the World. Here, weird is an acronym meaning Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. Henrich et al question the conclusions reached by social science experiments conducted largely at American universities. They propose that many of the fundamental truths arrived at in these experiments are actually completely culturally relative.
Take, for example, the ultimatum game:
The rules are simple: in each game there are two players who remain anonymous to each other. The first player is given an amount of money, say $100, and told that he has to offer some of the cash, in an amount of his choosing, to the other subject. The second player can accept or refuse the split. But there’s a hitch: players know that if the recipient refuses the offer, both leave empty-handed. North Americans, who are the most common subjects for such experiments, usually offer a 50-50 split when on the giving end. When on the receiving end, they show an eagerness to punish the other player for uneven splits at their own expense. In short, Americans show the tendency to be equitable with strangers—and to punish those who are not.
When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount.
“It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”
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.
From Pacific Standard
An adapted version of this paper (and / or the summary of Henrich’s work presented in Pacific Standard) would make great content for a unit on cultural differences and academic research. I would particularly recommend it for EAP students who are planning to study at an American university. These ideas could empower them to resist over-simplified viewpoints in their social science classes.
UPDATE: There is also an infographic available highlighting several of the main points in this study.