Monday, March 25, 2013

The death of psychology

 A lot of experimental psychology assumes that the basic drives and needs of humans is on some level universal.  We all eat, we all sleep, most of us eventually have some sort of family.
But when a psychologist goes off to the deep rain forest and gives those same standard test that much of modern behavioral research is based on, the results came back very different than the norm.
Mark McGinnis, Pacific Standard, 25 February 2013 (hat tip: Big Picture)
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.
Henrich had thought he would be adding a small branch to an established tree of knowledge. It turned out he was sawing at the very trunk. He began to wonder: What other certainties about “human nature” in social science research would need to be reconsidered when tested across diverse populations?
The piece goes on to note that (surprise, surprise) cultural differences are a much mare basic divider of human attitudes, and than the post-war academia had been willing to accept.  The difficulty with this finding is that it my very well lead to believe that some cultures are inherently "superior" to others.
And in fact, as they went further on, they eventually came to the conclusion that the worst group that you could choose to find out about "universal" attitudes and perceptions was Western European derived society.  Their eventual conclusion:

The Weirdest People in the World (pdf)
Joseph Henrich, Unversity of British Columbia, 5 March 2009
Broad claims about human psychology and behavior based on narrow samples from Western societies are regularly published. Are such species‐generalizing claims justified? This review suggests not only substantial variability in experimental results across populations in basic domains, but that standard subjects are unusual compared with the rest of the species—outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, spatial reasoning, moral reasoning, thinking‐styles, and self‐concepts. This suggests (1) caution in addressing questions of human nature from this slice of humanity, and (2) that understanding human psychology will require broader subject pools.
For myself, I think the Western Culture has an awful lot of advantages.  But given that we are the first to collectively act in a way that would blow up the world in one big nuclear holocaust, and seem to despoil much of the natural world in an effort to keep our current economic paradigm going, I am not sure if "the best" is an automatic assumption.  Weird, I think actually fits pretty well.


PioneerPreppy said...

I think your being unfair in your last paragraph. Indeed Western cultures have shown remarkable resolve and will power in not destroying the world with nuclear weapons and despoiling the natural world. Southern Asians are by far more destructive to the natural world than Westerners.

mohave rat said...

excellent post my friend! the rat

russell1200 said...


The Asians can be very destructive, but that does not absolve our own issues. We haven't had the nukes all that long yet, and we have done a very poor job of keeping their access restricted. As far as I know, only the United States successfully developed the engineering for the A-bomb - all the rest are derivative.

Rat: Thanks.