18 Mar

Why Americans Are the Weirdest People in the World

On Facebook Daniel Spector hit me up with this link. Researchers who began to take cognitive puzzle studies that they assumed showed the basic underlying way of human thinking to other cultures were startled to find that things like basic economics games/puzzles and even our perception of images on paper differ. And:

” ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ (pdf) By ‘weird’ they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that ‘American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.’”

That’s not a problem. It’s interesting to find out that a culture is not normative, culture varies all over the world. The problem is this:

. 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.

That simple, ethnocentric assumption among researchers and scientists, that failure to test even MRI responses to neuro-cognition outside of non-Western culture subjects, means that most of our understanding of thought processes actually doesn’t apply to humanity as a whole, but mostly American subjects.

That’s a problem, because American subjects, the new research finds, aren’t particularly normative of most of the human population. So what we know is how Americans or westerners respond to economic games, MRIs, neuro-cognitive research, and so forth.

But that isn’t necessarily the underly circuitry, as such.

This has implications from diplomacy, to war, to international trade, to everything.

But the truth is, one thing I love about this story is the description of how science works embedded in it. A glaring omission due to a major fundamental base assumption, overturned by straight forward, falsifiable research. Once the researcher ran these neuro-cognitive tests on a variety of non-western cultures and reported the data, scientists had to react. And many of them did so by realizing the data was right, and beginning to reexamine base assumptions across their research. Making it more right. Meaning the science gets better.

Well done, guys.

(Via Why Americans Are the Weirdest People in the World.)