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Sociology (and other group data) assumptions based on Americans.
February 25, 2013 1:27 PM   Subscribe

And that's a bad idea. Much of standard group behavior data in Sociology/Economics/Psychology is based on Americans. Which don't seem (contrary to universal assumptions) to be shared by a lot of the World.
posted by aleph (53 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was just thinking about this issue the other day, thanks for posting this!

A good friend is doing some psych research right now, and since she's working out of a university the overwhelming majority of her volunteers are... 18-to-22-year-olds who had the social capital to get into an elite private university!

Since I studied anthropology I always read stories with headlines like "new studies show men are like this and women are like that! Totally 100% for sure, all the time" and I think- did you sample people from Japan and Tunisia and Chile and Kazakhstan? No? Then you DON'T GET TO CLAIM THAT argh
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:36 PM on February 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


Interesting to see that the anthropologists didn't want Prof. Henrich. There seems to be a real resistance in that field to scientific or social scientific methodologies.
posted by Area Man at 1:41 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I see anthropology, economics and psychology mentioned in the article but not sociology. While I think the article is great and the work Norenzayan and the others are doing is fantastic, I can think of nothing that would delight sociologists more than the possibility that things previously thought to be hard-wired are in fact culturally specific. "HA!" we will be able to say to our evolutionary psychologist colleagues over trays of olives and cheap wine at the faculty Christmas parties. "We told you!"
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:42 PM on February 25, 2013 [10 favorites]


Effectively a double.
posted by knile at 1:43 PM on February 25, 2013


the overwhelming majority of her volunteers are... 18-to-22-year-olds who had the social capital to get into an elite private university!

I'm looking forward to the headline: 98% of the Population Will Answer Three Pages of Intrusive Questions for $5 and a Candy Bar
posted by phunniemee at 1:43 PM on February 25, 2013 [23 favorites]


To an outsider such as myself, it seems unlikely that anyone would make such a fundamental mistake in their assumptions. Is this really the case, or is this another one of those things that makes for a fun, readable article, but doesn't accurately reflect reality?
posted by pipeski at 1:46 PM on February 25, 2013


To an outsider such as myself, it seems unlikely that anyone would make such a fundamental mistake in their assumptions. Is this really the case, or is this another one of those things that makes for a fun, readable article, but doesn't accurately reflect reality?

Most of the scientists seem pretty clear on this, but not all of them. Once it gets disseminated to the mass media it is usually lost.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 1:49 PM on February 25, 2013


The rest of you all may not be Americans, but give it some time, you will be. After all, we embody your aspirations.

This stuff will apply to the rest of you, eventually.
posted by notyou at 1:55 PM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Gee.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:57 PM on February 25, 2013


It's been said that Psychology is the study of American college undergraduates.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:58 PM on February 25, 2013 [26 favorites]


The rest of you all may not be Americans, but give it some time, you will be. After all, we embody your aspirations are the world's biggest (cultural) imperial power.

Sorry, couldn't resist :P
posted by capricorn at 1:59 PM on February 25, 2013


But yeah, this is a real phenomenon in academia - and it isn't just going on in behavioral studies, it's also the most prominent criticism of Chomskyan linguistics.
posted by capricorn at 2:00 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


To an outsider such as myself, it seems unlikely that anyone would make such a fundamental mistake in their assumptions. Is this really the case, or is this another one of those things that makes for a fun, readable article, but doesn't accurately reflect reality?

Well, it's complicated, but most of the time I don't think that social scientists willingly make such a fundamental mistake. The whole WEIRD thing happens for various reasons but a major one is opportunity. Every social researcher would love to be able to test their hypothesis in three or four different cultures, or at least on members of those cultures, but they are frequently constrained by factors as varied as: being asked to teach a full load on top of research (no time to travel), lack of funding (no money to get there or bring representatives to their sites), and lack of institutional infrastructure and support for their research. So they end up, like all resourceful people with a passion, using what they have on hand and don't have to scrounge up funding or jump through a million extra hoops for: their students, or, on a good day when they're feeling daring, a sample of self-selecting pedestrians in a busy place (like people strolling past in a shopping mall.)

And then they publish articles that say, "Using a sample of 18 - 22 year-old students at a medium-sized regional college in the Midwest, researchers tested the hypothesis... and found..." and then in the conclusion they will talk about their results and (usually) be careful to qualify any generalizations. And then the next researcher, who would also love to go test the motor reflex of tribes in the Amazon but just didn't have time to write that NSF grant on top of teaching extra classes so his department budget can stretch just a little farther, will build on the previous study, and once again use students as a baseline. And then he will say, "We found X, which is supported by Researcher A's results," but he too will be careful not to generalize about his results too much. And then the next researcher comes along... and the whole process just repeats itself. It's like a house of cards that everybody knows is a house of cards but hey, if cards are all you've got, you're still gonna build something.

So there's all kinds of reasons that researchers do this, and yes, some of them are mistakes about generalizing things like neurological interactions without sufficient evidence, but a lot of the time it's just desperation because they want to know the answer to a question and can only find that answer with the tools at hand.
posted by WidgetAlley at 2:00 PM on February 25, 2013 [19 favorites]


Well, you get the abstract of a study, which is something like...

The extent to which men are the primary carers of infirm elderly people and the amount of support men carers receive from the statutory and voluntary services relative to women carers is examined using data from the 1980 General Household Survey. It is shown that men make a larger contribution to caring than is often recognised.

Then you get to the popular press or the university PR department and the clickbait headline screams...

WHY DO WOMEN NOT CARE ABOUT THE ELDERLY? or DO FEMALE NURSES NOT CARE ABOUT THE VULERNABLE AND INFIRM? or...

And so it goes.

But you see this in the hard sciences, too, not just the social sciences. Just yesterday, I was reading a story about how good the teeth of a caveman are relative to our own (broadly speaking) and speculating the increase in carbohydrates in our diet may have something to do with the increase in cavities, which naturally becomes EATING THE PALEO DIET CURES CAVITIES when filtered enough.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:00 PM on February 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


It's not so important that any given researcher includes multiple cultures or societies in their research, as much as it is that there are multiple researchers studying the same things in a number of cultures and societies. The former would make research all but impossible for everyone except those with vast resources at their disposal.

In addition to that, though, the consideration of validity might mean that more groups are central to your research than others. If you're studying mock-jurors in the United State legal system, then you don't need to include people from other countries, as you aren't extrapolating to them. If you're studying something that is more universal, such as some biological experiences, then you might be better able to extrapolate from the 18-22 year olds than a social psychologist might.
posted by bizzyb at 2:13 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you're studying something that is more universal, such as some biological experiences, then you might be better able to extrapolate from the 18-22 year olds than a social psychologist might.

The problem comes when things are seen as or assumed to be biologically essential when they aren't necessarily - see a lot of the field of evolutionary psychology for examples.
posted by Dysk at 2:41 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


To an outsider such as myself, it seems unlikely that anyone would make such a fundamental mistake in their assumptions. Is this really the case, or is this another one of those things that makes for a fun, readable article, but doesn't accurately reflect reality?

I like that everyone is so polite, but it has to be said: tons and tons of so-called research including lots of "hard science" fails in exactly this category. And this happens because the researchers rarely or never get called on it, which is again an effect of the perverse incentives of universities as well as companies large enough to have research departments or research budgets to give to universities.

It's sad - most people choose academic careers because they love their subject matter and really, really want to achieve something. But already during your graduate studies, you may well get sloppy guidance, and thus never learn good habits. Your professor may be encouraged by the department to take it easy and pass as many as possible, or s/he may have a sloppy education and not know better. (Depending on where you are in the world of research).
posted by mumimor at 2:51 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've seen the acronym WEIRD at least a dozen times in the last month of browsing. Interesting.

One subpoint in the article has always disturbed me: our lack of interaction with the natural world. In fact, I had just planned to do a day or two in my high school aesthetics class (on one function of literature as articulated by Llosa) featuring a great short story - available on the Web only to Harper's subscribers, unfortunately - called "The Next Thing" by Stephen Millhauser. It concerns a society, in microcosm, that gradually moves underground to what is like an underground mall simulating a suburb. Things do not go well, although the story portrays a gradual sickening...it's not your usual dystopian nightmare. Anyway, that's kind of a big problem with us WEIRD ones, IMO. And one that affects academic experiments, I should restate, to get back on topic.
posted by kozad at 2:53 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Aight, while this is a very interesting paper/article, I am unable to get the real world implications. WEIRD researchers use WEIRD subjects to publish in (mostly) WEIRD journals which are peer reviewed by fellow WEIRDs. There was a mistaken assumption that the findings were universal, but are not. So, the take away is for cross geographic/cultural works to be aware of the limitations of past works? This is just par for course for pretty much any work in science, right?
posted by asra at 2:54 PM on February 25, 2013


I'd love to see this kind of work done on Jonathan Haidt's conservative versus liberal dichotomy stuff. It has always struck me, a non-American familiar with political systems with more than two parties, more as an American way to divide the world than any kind of human tendency.
posted by srboisvert at 3:09 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is an amusing kicker of a punch line in that article, although the author doesn't seem to see it.

He repeatedly tells us that WEIRD Americans have an individualistic, un-communitarian mindset. WEIRDos use analytic reasoning to view the world. They see themselves as separable from their culture. We get the impression that Westerners believe that, as individuals, they can rationally choose their own way of life for personal success and improvement, rather than "the interdependent self -- which is more the norm in East Asian countries, including Japan and China -- [which] connects itself with others in a social group and favors social harmony over self-expression."

And then he gets to talk to the scientists over dinner, where he asks them this question:
"Can I mold my own psyche or the psyches of my children to be less WEIRD and more able to think like the rest of the world? If I did, would I be happier?"

Henrich reacted with mild concern that I was taking this research so personally. He had not intended, he told me, for his work to be read as postmodern self-help advice.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 3:12 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was thinking, "Score for the historians!" since historians study not just non-WEIRD mindsets, but the mindsets of people from decades, if not hundreds of years ago. A lot of history is about trying to understand how people who aren't like us acted and thought, and why they did what they did.

But, yeah, it's sad that the anthropology establishment was so close-minded. I've appreciated some of the critiques that anthropology brings to social science, but sometimes they get all critique and no positive contribution.
posted by jb at 3:20 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


"It's not so important that any given researcher includes multiple cultures or societies in their research, as much as it is that there are multiple researchers studying the same things in a number of cultures and societies. The former would make research all but impossible for everyone except those with vast resources at their disposal. "

This. The most important implication of this research, it seems to me, is that psychologists, anthropologists and social scientists in other countries should be redoing most of the basic foundational experiments in their field on local subjects. Then you can have some kind of meta-analysis comparing the results.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:30 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sometimes it gets done. Cross-cultural studies of the Semantic Differential (words evaluated from -3 to 3 on Goodness, Power, and Activity) are available.

"Japanese males’ EPA profile for child is -0.24 -2.10 2.75, and the profile is 0.00
-2.00 2.80 for Japanese females, according to Interact’s Japanese repository of sentiments.
The low evaluation of child seems bizarre to individuals in cultures that
view children as very nice—e.g., in America the EPA profile for child is 1.45 -0.76
2.10 among males and 2.08 -0.64 1.94 among females."

(Affect Control Theory)
posted by dragonsi55 at 3:41 PM on February 25, 2013


Having spent time in Palo Alto over a couple of years it gives me hope that the Stanford prison experiment might not be a universal truth about humanity but just 'this is what people around here are like."
posted by Space Coyote at 4:47 PM on February 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


evolutionary psychology... evolutionary psychology

I can't help but notice that evolutionary psychology is not very highly regarded 'round these parts. In fact, I would say the received view is that evolutionary psychology is self-evidently preposterous, and need not even be recognized as a field deserving of refutation. This is the third thread on the subject I've walked into, and the consensus always seems to be that right-thinking people should just abhor the thought that psychology ought to be consilient with evolutionary biology.

Meanwhile, it is also conventional wisdom on MeFi that most popular science writing is mired in misunderstandings about the work it attempts to communicate to the public.

And yet, when I've asked (twice now!) for specific examples of studies irreparably flawed by evolutionary theorizing, I've not gotten a single response. So I ask folks where they've come by their understanding of the field. "From the headlines", they usually reply.

Is there an inconsistency here? Is science writing unusually accurate about evolutionary psychology? Is the set of MeFites who disdain evo psych disjoint from the set who disdain science writing?

One final point, here: it seems to be taken for granted that the WEIRD papers are some sort of death knell for evolutionary psychology. Wait, who were the authors on the WEIRD papers? Were they three evolutionary psychologists? Well then.
posted by lambdaphage at 5:27 PM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Henrich wrote a great book called "Why Humans Cooperate" that's well worth a trip to your local academic library. It combines formal models, experimental results, and an in-depth case study of the Chaldean (Iraqi Assyrian Christian) community in Detroit, a less-WEIRD pocket in the middle of our market culture. It's very readable, and completely changed the way I (once a cruel and heartless economist) see human cooperation.

The implications of this research don't stop at "culture shapes our minds and different cultures shape minds differently." This just pushes the question back further, to "where does culture come from and why are some cultures different?" Henrich's answer is that culture evolves by Darwinian processes of transmission and replication, that cultural and biological evolution are tightly coupled, and that cultures are different because they have evolved different sets of norms, memes, and institutions. So the research that vindicates different behavior in different cultures is in fact part of the grand, widely hated tradition of sociobiology!

Give it a chance, though, and you'll find a theory that explains self-interest and altruism alike, and that I find very optimistic (though I know I'm not supposed to make that kind of judgment!). The evolutionary process that made modern market exchange possible involved expanding human trust and cooperation from kin to tribe to nation to global economy, and coming up with norms and institutions that make that expanding circle of trust possible. I hope it's possible to appreciate this without squabbling over whether it means some cultures are "more evolved" than others or whatever, which ruined the last few times we tried it.

See also "Not by Genes Alone" by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, another excellent book on new theories of gene-culture coevolution.
posted by ecmendenhall at 6:00 PM on February 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


very interesting article although "Joe Henrich and his colleagues are shaking the foundations of psychology and economics" seems rather overblown. This kind of study is nothing new (though I really like this particular study - is the game described really a variant of Prisoner's Dilemma though?), indeed it's pretty much the kind of thing modern cultural anthropology is founded upon. Economics and the social sciences are old targets. The real challenge is taking on the ethnocentric assumptions in the new wave of neurophysiologically-based behavioural sciences
posted by Bwithh at 6:14 PM on February 25, 2013


So many studies exclusively use first year North American university students as their subjects; so yeah, we know more about them then we'd ever to care to know about any one advertiser-friendly demographic...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 6:20 PM on February 25, 2013


This is the third thread on the subject I've walked into, and the consensus always seems to be that right-thinking people should just abhor the thought that psychology ought to be consilient with evolutionary biology.

The problem isn't so much with the idea of evolutionary ideas informing psychology as it is with the tendency of the popularized evolutionary psychologists being the very worst sort of system justifiers. Sexism and rape as biological imperatives and that kind of tripe. It's kind of like the way that there is nothing inherently wrong with psychological measurement as a field but everyone knows it has attracted a number of outright racists who have set out to create a racial intelligence hierarchy that preserves their prejudices.

Much of evo psych is also plagued with is-ought and just-so fallacies. It can and is done well sometimes. It's just rare that you will read any of the credible stuff outside of the paywalled academic journals.
posted by srboisvert at 6:23 PM on February 25, 2013 [8 favorites]


There is good evolutionary psychology out there, that very carefully considers its context and makes a point not to generalize too much about its conclusions and says things like, "We can never really fully separate social influence from inherent traits but in this case we tried really hard and it looks like the humans we studied seem to share X even though we can't figure out how that would have happened socially, so maybe it's a genes thing."

And then there are evolutionary psychologist who are, basically, screaming things like WE CAN'T STOP RAPE IT'S JUST HOW MEN ARE (and somehow justify it by saying that women who are unwilling are showing signs of infidelity and therefore GRAR MAN MUST RECLAIM.) And the fact that these researchers are not only tolerated but not called on their bullshit (for instance, if you really believe that rape is evolutionarily driven, why in God's name would you not call for some kind of genetic therapy to curb it? But no, every argument about the evolutionary necessity of rape is accompanied by hand-wringing apologeticism.) That sort of behavior, understandably, puts the people who are hurt by these scientific views on edge about the discipline as a whole.
posted by WidgetAlley at 7:17 PM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh hey here's a good one. "The discerning observer may infer women's experience of vaginal orgasm from a gait that comprises fluidity, energy, sensuality, freedom, and absence of both flaccid and locked muscles." Oh yeah, those are totally unloaded scientifically valid terms.

Short answer: if psychologists want other academics to take evo psych seriously, dudes like this need to be laughed out of the journal in peer review... if they even make it past their department chair.
posted by WidgetAlley at 7:21 PM on February 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I was quibbling about this last week...

My question with the WEIRD acronym is a semantic issue. It is obvious that the 12% minority who consume most of the world's resources are not representative of all human behavior on this planet, so I mostly agree with this article. But the researchers downplay their own subtle flair for postmodernism, here at the Western World...
posted by ovvl at 7:25 PM on February 25, 2013


WidgetAlley,

You are misrepresenting the stated, published views of Thornhill and Palmer about as badly as it is possible to do so. The literal first words of their book-length treatment of the subject are:
As scientists who would like to see rape eradicated from human life...
and they later offer policy recommendations, including a rape-prevention course as a condition of obtaining a driver's license for men, aimed at reducing the incidence of rape. Whether you agree with their recommendations is another matter, but those are hardly the words and views of "hand-wringing apologists". As Steven Pinker pointed out elsewhere, some of their recommendations may not be desirable as public policy, but that is a world away from the claim that they are defending rape. Thornhill and Palmer's point, crudely, is that it is necessary to understand why rape occurs in order to prevent it.

(Moorean thought experiment: how absurd and depraved would one's opponents' views have to be before one admitted the possibility that one might just be simply mistaken about what those views actually are? Is it before or past the point of supposing that two scientists would argue publicly and at length for the "evolutionary necessity [sic?!] of rape"? )

Again, this is all a matter of public record, and I don't understand what you have to gain by flatly fabricating the views of researchers you intend to criticize.
posted by lambdaphage at 8:01 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Re: the vaginal orgasm & gait study, I'm not sure what this has to do with evolutionary psychology in particular, rather than a random sexology study you think is poorly written. Indeed, the authors seem to be interested in "theories of psychotherapy [which] assert a link between muscle blocks and disturbances of both character and sexual function". That is decidedly not evolutionary psychology.

(The language of the abstract seems pretty over the top to me, but I guess that just goes to show I'm not a, uh, Belgian sexologist.)
posted by lambdaphage at 8:15 PM on February 25, 2013


Again, this is all a matter of public record, and I don't understand what you have to gain by flatly fabricating the views of researchers you intend to criticize.

Hey, that's wonderful! I have only read some of their articles, not their book, so I'm pleased to hear they are coming up with plans for action. The article I linked to does make statements about rape being undesirable, which is better than not acknowledging it at all, but still goes on to talk about rape as a defense against infidelity, which in my book can be pretty problematic. So chalk this one up as a case of evolutionary psychologists taking some responsibility for their subject matter. May they encourage their colleagues to do the same.

However, as progressive as their policies apparently are (and I really do think mandatory rape education for men is a pretty great idea), they are still putting forward what is, to me, a troubling narrative. Most damagingly, they are putting forward an explanation of rape that is entirely sex-driven and mostly culture non-specific, which leaves a lot of people out in the cold as far as why persons in culturally non-privileged positions are raped at such high frequencies by persons of social privilege. I realize this is kind of a derail, so I will just say that there is a whole book on the subject of why their studies are troubling (which I have only read individual excerpts from, not the whole thing, but I can at least vouch for several sections of it.)

(One of the authors of the Belgian study is Stuart Brody, who likes to posit possible evolutionary explanations to go along with his Freudianism. He is also, interestingly, REALLY REALLY REALLY into the idea that reports of AIDs transmission through heterosexual sex are vastly overinflated. Go figure.)
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:30 PM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


capricorn: "But yeah, this is a real phenomenon in academia - and it isn't just going on in behavioral studies, it's also the most prominent criticism of Chomskyan linguistics."

Not really. The core claims of Chomskyan syntax are replicated over and over in basically every non-Western, non-Indo-European language ever tested. Not that Chomsky doesn't have problems (related to a failure to take statistical information about language use into account), but "'murricans talk different" isn't one of them.

WidgetAlley: "I really do think mandatory rape education for men is a pretty great idea"

FTFY?
posted by dendrochronologizer at 10:44 PM on February 25, 2013


FTFY?

Oh, trust me. Women already get PLENTY.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:04 AM on February 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


Research like the stuff in the FPP undermines the idea of evolutionary psychology. Culture does change psychology, and we're not in the stone age. Why would we have the same psychology?
posted by jb at 5:36 AM on February 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


From TFA:
We shape a tool in a certain manner, adhere to a food taboo, or think about fairness in a particular way, not because we individually have figured out that behavior’s adaptive value, but because we instinctively trust our culture to show us the way. When Henrich asked Fijian women why they avoided certain potentially toxic fish during pregnancy and breastfeeding, he found that many didn’t know or had fanciful reasons. Regardless of their personal understanding, by mimicking this culturally adaptive behavior they were protecting their offspring. The unique trick of human psychology, these researchers suggest, might be this: our big brains are evolved to let local culture lead us in life’s dance.
This is very clearly an evo-psych hypothesis. It makes a functional, adaptive claim about what our brains are evolved to do, and specifies a mechanism through which culture affects our thinking and behavior through evolved mental faculties. How is this NOT evolutionary psychology?
posted by AceRock at 8:19 AM on February 26, 2013


This is stealth evo-psych. Look at all the shiny culture baubles in my right hand. What's in my left hand? Please just focus on my right hand.
posted by No Robots at 8:53 AM on February 26, 2013


I find the critique of studying overwhelmingly American subjects and then over-generalizing the results, and concerns about detrimental consequences (e.g. exporting economic or political structures/policies without regard to cultural differences) persuasive. But the very end of the piece, where there are statements like
Heine and others suggest that such differences may be the echoes of cultural activities and trends going back thousands of years. Whether you think of yourself as interdependent or independent may depend on whether your distant ancestors farmed rice (which required a great deal of shared labor and group cooperation) or herded animals (which rewarded individualism and aggression).
It all gets awfully fuzzy - seemingly suggesting that we inherit culture directly from our ancestors, as if the descendants of rice farmers will tend to have certain belief structures whether or not they've lived their entire lives among the descendants of herders. Which would seem counter-intuitive when the article reports that Americans (a comparatively new culture without one ancient traditional way of life) have the strongest cultural differences of all. Indeed, the article is throughout quite vague about whether culture primarily attaches to a particular place and its current residents, or to the group of genetically linked people whose ancestors lived together there. However it's not clear if that ambiguity is attributable to Heine or just to the author of the article.
posted by unsub at 8:54 AM on February 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


It all gets awfully fuzzy - seemingly suggesting that we inherit culture directly from our ancestors, as if the descendants of rice farmers will tend to have certain belief structures whether or not they've lived their entire lives among the descendants of herders. Which would seem counter-intuitive when the article reports that Americans (a comparatively new culture without one ancient traditional way of life) have the strongest cultural differences of all.

That's a really good point. I also to some extent question the validity of claims like the idea that culture is attached to a group of genetically linked people whose ancestors lived together there. I mean, I can certainly see how that would be true in someplace like Iceland, because, heeellloooo isolation (or then again, considering the Vikings' travels, maybe not.) But places like Europe and North Africa and Central Asia have been popular trading and traveling routes for astonishingly long periods of time. Have any studies been done (and I'm not even sure how you would go about doing this) on historical genetic diversity in those areas compared to the history of individual cultures? Can we even really talk about a "group of genetically linked people" that are distinct enough from surrounding groups for long enough that we can make connections between their specific culture and their biological makeup? It seems like the northern Native populations (Sami, Inuit, etc.) might be a good candidate but I really don't know.
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:06 AM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


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.”
Sounds reasonable. "This loony North American has come to our village and set up a bizarre game. But hey, free money!" We don't know a priori if they end up sharing their proceeds more equitably in the long run, eg. if their friend ends up not having the opportunity to be player 1 in the game.

That said, there are many different notions of fairness just in the US; I am entirely unsurprised that there would also be differences in other cultures. And fairness might not be the relevant concept anyway, depending on how the people being studied understand or view the game. I found this part quite interesting, for example:
in some societies—ones where gift-giving is heavily used to curry favor or gain allegiance—the first player would often make overly generous offers in excess of 60 percent, and the second player would often reject them, behaviors almost never observed among Americans.
I can certainly see why he would have gotten push-back from anthropologists given the cultural assumptions inherent in the whole setup and methodology of these games that he was testing on other cultures. In many ways he wasn't so much studying those other cultures in and of themselves, but studying how members of the other cultures reacted when confronted with social artifacts of a dominant US culture. And arguable, that's not so much what anthropology is about (as I understand it).

Looking at the effects of culture on psychology is, I think, a very interesting and worthwhile idea, though.
posted by eviemath at 12:44 PM on February 26, 2013


On the evolutionary psychology topic: so, "evolution" technically refers to a very specific biological process of genetic variation and refinement. In contrast, "evolutionary psychology" seems to use the term evolution in a more metaphorical sense.

In the common layperson's understanding, evolutionary psychology attributes complex individual and social behaviors to either biological factors that are assumed or implied to be common across a large swath of the species; or to "selection" pressures on societies many, many centuries ago, implying a (metaphorically) glacial rate of change for both individuals' psychology and groups' cultures, and implying a relative lack of effect of current cultural pressures on individual psychology. Science reporting is not known to be fabulously accurate, so I'm willing to believe that this is a rather inaccurate understanding of the field of evolutionary psychology.

The work reported on in the FPP seems to be taking almost an opposite view, arguing that current culture has a very strong influence on individual psychology and behavior. Where the popular understanding of evolutionary psychology is that it falls on the "nature" end of the nature versus nurture debate, the FPP describes the profiled scientists' results as falling pretty solidly on the "nurture" end. I don't know how accurate the article is, and from what some of you all have said above, it sounds like it may be the case that these guys are in some sense rejecting the idea of a nature versus nurture binary in the first place. It's easy to see why non-specialists would not identify them as evolutionary psychologists, and in fact think that their work was directly opposed to evolutionary psychology, however.

"our big brains are evolved to let local culture lead us in life’s dance."
This is very clearly an evo-psych hypothesis. It makes a functional, adaptive claim about what our brains are evolved to do, and specifies a mechanism through which culture affects our thinking and behavior through evolved mental faculties. How is this NOT evolutionary psychology?


So here's the thing about why so many people are so dismissive of evolutionary psychology as a purported field of scientific study.

That sentence has the word evolution in it, but that's not particularly relevant to the actual hypothesis as far as I can tell. The hypothesis is that, as currently observed in the present, human brains exhibit the property that our cultural context impacts not only our values, our social interactions with others, and the manner in which we interpret social situations, but also our more physical perceptions. That's just neuroscience and psychology. The evolutionary part would be if they had brain samples from people going back many centuries and could show changes paralleling the development of this trait over time, and link that with some selective pressures on populations.

Speculating on such selective pressures in the absence of any physical evidence falls back into what the average layperson understands as evolutionary psychology, however, and is not really science. It may be that the scientists profiled in the FPP mix in some of this sort of speculation to their papers. That would be unfortunate, because it sounds like they have some interesting work otherwise. It sounds more like they look at historical pressures on the development of culture in a non-evolutionary-biology way. Which is perfectly fine and a good thing to do, too. Perhaps they explain their historical economics and historical psychology findings using the language of evolution as a metaphor, which I'm not keen on because I think there's too much abuse of shaky evolution metaphors and responsible folks shouldn't contribute to that trend, but if they are not actually claiming that they are describing an evolutionary process, I won't quibble too much. Maybe it's the case that they are studying processes of cultural change and adaptation that closely follow biological evolution in the sense that there are some factors that generate cultural variation and recombination, and other factors that cause certain poorly-adapted cultures or cultural practices/traits to become obsolete. In order to make this a scientific study rather than just a descriptive metaphor, you'd need to get a lot more specific about what those factors and processes are, propose falsifiable/testable hypotheses, etc., but if they do that, that sounds pretty cool too. That's no longer psychology though, since it looks at groups traits and behaviors rather than individuals.

Basically, I realize I am not an expert and so may be missing relevant information, but so far I'm unconvinced by the (two-part) claim that these guys are evolutionary psychologists too and since they do what appears to be good work not this reactionary and reductionist crap that we more often hear about that we should respect the field of evolutionary psychology as a legitimate scientific area of study.

But getting back to the FPP, that was interesting, thanks for the link!
posted by eviemath at 1:28 PM on February 26, 2013


Henrich is not looking at this in a non-evolutionary-biology way. He believes that culture is a crucial component of biological evolution, that biology is a crucial component of cultural evolution, and that Darwinian theory should incorporate both. You'll have to decide for yourself if it's a shaky metaphor. This excerpt from the first chapter of his book is a good summary:
In our emphasis on culture and culture-gene coevolution, this book is unlike most other works in the field of evolution and human behavior. Broadly following the research programs laid out by Charles Darwin (1981) and James Mark Baldwin (1896a; 1896b; 1968), our theoretical approach brings "culture" (as socially learned behaviors, beliefs, values, etc.) into evolutionary theory (Richerson and Boyd 2005). In contrast to noncultural evolutionary approaches, such as those typically found under the rubric of "evolutionary psychology" (Tooby and Cosmides 1992), our framework adds two interrelated elements that we believe are crucial for understanding humans. First, we draw ideas from a large and growing body of evolutionary theory that views our "evolved minds" as a result (at least in part) of the coevolutionary interaction between genes and culture (Boyd and Richerson 1985; Henrich 2004; Henrich and McElreath 2003; Laland 2000; A. Rogers 1989). Given the massive reliance that humans place on social learning (i.e., culture: Tomasello 1999; Tomasello 2000) and the tendency for these socially transmitted behaviors to alter both our local physical and social environments (Durham 1991), it is quite difficult to imagine how cultural transmission could not have affected genetic evolution. Second, the unique nature of human cultural transmission creates chains of learning that operate over successive generations. That is, our cultural capacity gives rise to cultural evolution and suggests that some important aspects of human behavior cannot be understood without considering the cultural evolutionary history of the particular social group in question.

In the coming chapters, we argue that both elements of this dual inheritance approach, culture-gene coevolution and culture history, are of great importance for understanding cooperation in our species and can be effectively incorporated under the umbrella of Darwinian theory (Boyd and Richerson 2002; Henrich et al. 2003; Richerson and Boyd 1998; Richerson, Boyd, and Henrich 2003). Thus, our theoretical perspective allows researchers to consider and develop explanations that involve both genetically evolved psychologies and cultural transmission (and culturally evolved psychologies: Levinson 2003; Nisbett 2003) without manifesting the very popular, false, and intellectually destructive dichotomy between evolutionary and cultural explanations. As we hope to show with regard to the Chaldeans, fully incorporating the Darwin-Baldwin vision of culture-gene coevolution expands our abilities to explain human behavior without losing the critical linkages between humans and the rest of the natural world that evolutionary theory provides.
posted by ecmendenhall at 5:46 PM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the link and quote! That makes it more clear than Henrich is actually looking at actual evolution.

(Though I note that he contrasts his approach with evolutionary psychology - or "evolutionary psychology", as he puts it - indicating that he views his work as not being evolutionary psychology. Which maintains my current understanding of/beliefs about evolutionary psychology.)
posted by eviemath at 5:58 PM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Don't any of the Universities outside North America and Europe run psych experiments on their undergraduates, or their local populations? If they do, doesn't anyone read any of the papers those Universities publish?
posted by monotreme at 6:36 PM on February 26, 2013


Replicate This - "Do classic psychological studies published in high-profile journals hold up? The Reproducibility Project aims to find out."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:38 PM on February 26, 2013


Also, Henrich previously
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:39 PM on February 26, 2013


it is quite difficult to imagine how cultural transmission could not have affected genetic evolution.

We know of only two causes of acquired characteristics: alcoholism and syphilis. I guess you could consider these as cultural transmissions.
posted by No Robots at 8:55 PM on February 26, 2013


it is quite difficult to imagine how cultural transmission could not have affected genetic evolution.

We know of only two causes of acquired characteristics: alcoholism and syphilis. I guess you could consider these as cultural transmissions.

I may be mixing things up, but isn't a tolerance for lactose also in this category?
posted by knile at 12:03 AM on February 27, 2013


Very interesting thanks! I'm now wondering if vegetarianism is influenced by "Children who grow up constantly interacting with the natural world are much less likely to anthropomorphize other living things into late childhood."
posted by jeffburdges at 5:12 PM on March 11, 2013


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