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The Weirdest People in the World

March 5th, 2013 · 5 Comments

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.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Khalid kadir // Mar 5, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    A comment from a friend, when I shared the article with her:

    “While the implicit praise of the western mind in the whole WEIRD discussion is vomit-inducing, the principle of debunking decades of economic and social psychology, all of which hinges on game-theoretic propositions, is really important. We need someone hitting folks over the head with that hammer. Too bad they turned it around to make the outliers seem like the most important and praise-worthy of humans.”

    In the context of EAP students, I think that this article could be particularly useful to work through the sorts of Western/American-rationality that they are forced to navigate and expected to conform to. It could open up some excellent conversations around the culturally-biased production of knowledge, and help students to think about their own approaches to the world (ethics, decision making, etc) and where those might run into friction as they try to operate within very different and hegemonic framework here in the United States.

  • 2 Dave // Mar 5, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    I’m confused by your friend’s comment — isn’t the point of the WEIRD discussion to STOP praising the Western mind? It sounds like she and the authors of this paper are on the same page.

    And I totally agree with you about the use of this topic with EAP students. In fact, after I posted this on the blog, I sent it to our EAP curriculum coordinator with those very ideas in mind.

    (And it’s great to hear from you!)

  • 3 Khalid kadir // Mar 7, 2013 at 3:31 am

    (it’s great to see a new post, too!!!)

    I understood the paper was saying that Western minds are outliers, and not representative of the rest of the world. Nonetheless, thought they may not be representative, they are still grounded with in both an epistemological and ontological framework that trumps the western mind over others (sorry, couldn’t resist getting academic with the language).

    The thing that really bugged me was pointed out in the article:

    “Professors from the anthropology department suggested it was a bad thing that I was doing,” Henrich remembers. “The word ‘unethical’ came up.”

    …and then? crickets. No one asked any further about the ethical implications of the work!

  • 4 Dave // Mar 7, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Interesting. I didn’t take it that way. If anything, I thought that by describing the WEIRD mindset as being at the extreme end of things, they were saying it was less healthy than other POVs. I appreciate that this paper doesn’t flip the biases of Western academics, but it seems like a step in the right direction.

    And, yes, I have been neglecting this site. Recently, I’ve been more active at my gardening site (permaculturish.com). I’m presenting at TESOL in a couple of weeks, though, so I’ll have a few posts about that. One of the presentations I’m doing is about food — and one of the issues I’m addressing is whether or not we give our students the language they need to follow their religious beliefs. We shall see!

  • 5 Khalid kadir // Mar 7, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    I’ll be reading – sounds like some posts that will be right up my alley!

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