Saturday, August 21, 2010

Are we 'The weirdest people in the world?'

Westerners vs. the World: We are the WEIRD ones
National Post: The Western mind differs in fundamental ways from the rest of humanity, according to Dr. [Joseph] Henrich. He and two other UBC researchers authored a paper shaking up the fields of psychology, cognitive science and behavioural economics by questioning whether we can know anything about humanity in general if we only study a 'truly unusual group of people' -- the privileged products of Western industrial societies, who just happen to make up the vast majority of behavioural science test subjects.

The article, titled 'The weirdest people in the world?' appears in the current issue of the journal Behavioural and Brain Sciences. Dr. Henrich and co-authors Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan argue that life-long members of societies that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic -- people who are WEIRD -- see the world in ways that are alien from the rest of the human family...

After analyzing reams of data from earlier studies, the UBC team found that WEIRD people reacted differently from others in experiment after experiment involving measures of fairness, anti-social punishment and co-operation, as well as visual illusions and questions of individuality and conformity.

Moreover, WEIRD people do not simply react to the world differently, according to the paper, they perceive it differently to begin with. Take the well-known Muller-Lyer optical illusion, which uses arrows to trick the viewer into thinking one line is longer than another, even if both are the same length... Dr. Henrich says... 'You do this with foragers in the Kalahari [Desert] and they just see two lines as the same length.'...

If WEIRD people are indeed weird, it is the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that have made them so... The UBC team hypothesizes that growing up in an industrial-era environment with plenty of 90-degree lines and carpentered edges led to WEIRD people's sense of vision being susceptible to the deception...

Cultural psychologist Will Bennis of Northwestern University... notes a human tendency, throughout history and across cultures, to regard one's own group as unique. 'There's a lot of reasons why we might mistakenly assume that our group is special,' he says. 'The point isn't that our group is not special, it's that each group is special in its own unique way.'
Image source here.