July 06, 2010

The WEIRDest people in the world

There is a freely available version of this article here (pdf).

Behav Brain Sci. 2010 Jun;33(2-3):61-83. Epub 2010 Jun 15.

The weirdest people in the world?

Henrich J, Heine SJ, Norenzayan A.

Abstract

Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world's top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers - often implicitly - assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these "standard subjects" are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species - frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior - hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.

Link

19 comments:

Maju said...

Looks a great finding, Dienekes. :)

I have only read the first few pages but it is already illustrative of how cultural biases affect our perception and psychology.

It can also illustrate the discussion on the problem of measuring intelligence across cultures. If an IQ test would be made only on the question of understanding the correct answer to the Mueller-Lyer illusion, then Bushmen would score much higher because there's simply no "illusion" for them. And it's not just this one illusion, which has a marked cultural bias. And it's a matter of intelligence indeed to discern objective reality from illusory one.

Will finish reading later.

onur said...

There is a strange observation in the beginning of the full text:

In the tropical forests of New Guinea the Etoro believe that for a boy to achieve manhood he must ingest the semen of his elders. This is accomplished through ritualized rites of passage that require young male initiates to fellate a senior member (Herdt 1984, Kelley 1980). In contrast, the nearby Kaluli maintain that male initiation is only properly done by ritually delivering the semen through the initiate’s anus, not his mouth. The Etoro revile these Kaluli practices, finding them disgusting. To become a man in these societies, and eventually take a wife, every boy undergoes these initiations. Such boy‐inseminating practices, which are enmeshed in rich systems of meaning and imbued with local cultural values, were not uncommon among the traditional societies of Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia (Herdt 1993), as well as in Ancient Greece and Tokugawa Japan. [emphasis mine]

Is there any evidence for boy-inseminating practices (for whatever reason) in Ancient Greece or Tokugawa Japan, or in any other ancient or modern Caucasoid (including Indians and North Africans), Mongoloid (including Amerindians, Polynesians and Ainus) or Caucaso-Mongoloid society?

Maju said...

"Is there any evidence for boy-inseminating practices (for whatever reason) in Ancient Greece or Tokugawa Japan"...

I have no idea about Japan but I understand that the Greek reference indicates the practice of male homosexuality between adults and youngsters, considered upon a time a good thing... also for the young ones, and hence sort of initiatory practice. It's a loose comparison probably but justified anyhow in the sense of illustrating how things WEIRDs consider extremely strange can be relatively normal and even mainstream in other cultural contexts.

This is I understand what the whole paragraph is about, a good example of classical shock-provoking anthropological literature.

Joel said...

Read Satyricon by Petronius; it deals with pederasty (such as you have just described, replete with an older male "mentor", and the youth who is brought in to adult male society through this relationship, i.e. copulation) in the early Roman Empire.
Unfortunately, NAMBLA appears to have a very ancient lineage...I sometimes wonder if the problems of sexual abuse within the Catholic church are not an institutionalized vestige of its Roman heritage. Notice that the celibate priest is rarely, if ever, caught with a female prostitute (or victim), but always a young boy (unlike televangelists, for example, who are almost always caught with adult female prostitutes). The law of averages would state that most sexual improprieties involving men would be heterosexual in nature, unless there were an informal initiation (involving the custom of pederasty)rite taking place, under our noses within the Catholic church.

Dienekes said...

I understand that the Greek reference indicates the practice of male homosexuality between adults and youngsters, considered upon a time a good thing

There is no evidence for this.

Jean said...

[i]classical shock-provoking anthropological literature[/i]

That is the one blot on an otherwise excellent article. Shock tactics just get readers to remember the shock, rather than the point of the article. Already the comments here have focused on it.

Joel said...

@Dienekes http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/0f/Oxford_Pederasty.jpg(They're just 'good friends')

Jean said...

Loved this bit:

Arnett (2008) notes that psychologists would surely bristle if journals were renamed to more accurately reflect the nature of their samples (e.g., [i]Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of American Undergraduate Psychology Students[/i]).

Dienekes said...

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/0f/Oxford_Pederasty.jpg

This proves that Greeks could draw, not that they approved of the practice shown. A future archaeologist would discover gay "art" in every country of the world, but that does not mean that homosexuality is accepted in every country of the world.

Maju said...

Jean: shock-provoking (IMO justified in this case) can also be thought-provoking, what is generally a good thing. Another circusmtance would be to succumb to mere sensationalism, but this shocking nature of Anthropology, which shows us how different other cultures and belief systems can be, is excellent for mind-opening, as long as it is accurate.

It is also an aspect in which Anthropology and Psychology may well clash, because Psychology, as exposed in this paper, tends to ignore the impact of culture in the mind, even from early childhood, while Anthropology instead tends to emphasize it.

In this sense we can well say that the paper is a good multidisciplinary blend.

DagoRed said...

The misunderstanding is born from some passages of Plato's "The Symposium".The author is clearly for the practice of the Pederastia and this give the prejudice that it was generally approved in the Greek world, but if we read well, him same says him of it was forbidden in the whole Jonia and that in almost all the cities of the mainland, inclusive Athens, was not seen well, even if not expressly forbidden.
Many exchange the vision of an elite in the general custom.
In the Roman society the relationship with the homosexuality was severe even more, even if with the time the uses will prevail on the law.
However in the ancient times a sexual liberty could not even be imagined as it is in the western world today. The ancient ones would be aghast from how much it happens today.

Dienekes said...

The misunderstanding is born from some passages of Plato's "The Symposium".The author is clearly for the practice of the Pederastia

That is not correct, as Plato rejects both pederasty (of the modern sexual kind) and homosexuality.

Kepler said...

Dienekes,
Did Herodotus not say Persians learnt the practice of sleeping with boys from the Greek?

I think he said it somewhere in a passage where he also says Persians were afraid of being naked while Greeks were not, but that the first had learnt from the Greek "to appreciate" (sic) sleeping with boys or something like that.

Is all of this false?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_in_ancient_Greece

Dienekes said...

Did Herodotus not say Persians learnt the practice of sleeping with boys from the Greek?

Plutarch responded to this charge, by noting that Persians castrated boys to be used as eunuchs, a practice that was unknown in the Greek world. I don't really see how any people "learned" this practice from any other people, as it has been recorded all over the planet.

South Central Haplo said...

so Persians improvised it seems.

Annie Mouse said...

When I read the article the first time I had the impression that the author was working up an argument in favour of paedephilia, along the lines of "Its not that paedophiles are weird, its the rest of the people who are deviant (WEIRD) really."

Its an interesting article with good stuff, worth thinking about.

But obscure tribes in the Amazon simply do not carry the population weight of the most of Europe and North America. These examples just goes to show how people with strong personalities within relatively small groups can alter entire cultures. Jonestown and various other cults come to mind. Its not really indicative of any natural order as the author is trying to imply.

Other results relate to the history of communities. If you live in an unjust society for many generations then morals change to suit the amoral/immoral climate. If you live in a small isolated community where every knows your business then there is no success to be had from crime, any unfair behaviour will come back to bite you.

Interesting data that was underdiscussed IMO because of of an alternative agenda.

Marnie said...

" If you live in an unjust society for many generations then morals change to suit the amoral/immoral climate. If you live in a small isolated community where every knows your business then there is no success to be had from crime, any unfair behaviour will come back to bite you."

I think it's more complicated than that. Other factors, such as leadership, equitable chances for employment, education, and healthcare are critical to maintaining social cohesion and a willingness for fairplay.

Some societies seem more resilient in withstanding stress, due to the above factors.

This paper is interesting in pointing out that some groups have odd social customs and different concepts of reciprocity.
(One cannot be inferred from the other.)

However, I am a little skeptical of its over-the-top proclamations. I agree that broad generalizations about psychology generalized from mostly American or European populations are problematic. However, as you note, the paper never attempted to compare, for instance, stable, socially cohesive small towns in Europe with stable, socially cohesive small towns in Africa.

I do think that the points about visual perception are very interesting.

Marnie said...

I do support the comments that the authors make about the need to excercise caution (in psychology) when generalizing from a narrow population to all of humanity.

However, the paper seems to lean in the direction of making an argument for moral relativism. There is a danger there, as arguments for moral (and psychological) relativism have made it difficult to set international standards for human rights, for example.

onix said...

oh well, as to the comments i think there is a common ground for the perception of 'insemination with maturity'. otoh i don't expect 'science' people to find it, indeed you need to appreciate it in a cultural anthropological sense, but once you can, it is simpler to expect it is rather universal. in that sense it's interesting, and revealing dieneke does not agree to the notion homosexuality was common through history;)