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Stats Science

We Aren't the World: Why Americans Make Bad Study Subjects 450

Posted by samzenpus
from the we-are-the-outliers dept.
Lasrick writes "This is just fascinating: Joe Henrich and his colleagues are shaking the foundations of psychology and economics, and explain why social science studies of Westerners — and Americans in particular — don't really tell us about the human condition: 'Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.'"
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We Aren't the World: Why Americans Make Bad Study Subjects

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  • What? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 25, 2013 @01:29PM (#43005551)

    "Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.'"

    Are they saying all the Americans are fat birds, unable to fly?

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      >Are they saying all the Americans are fat birds, unable to fly?

      Not without an 'enhanced' at down. No.

    • Re:What? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by ByOhTek (1181381) on Monday February 25, 2013 @01:36PM (#43005649) Journal

      I think they are saying, that in a couple small tests, many cultures, particularly less wealthy or more family oriented cultures, react differently than Americans, and therefore Americans make incredibly bad case studies.

      Bullshit.

      It's better to say, that we are in a different basic situation, so of course we make bad case studies WHEN BEING COMPARED TO OTHER CULTURES WITH DIFFEREING CONDITIONS. You can make that statement about ANY culture. And every culture will probably have a case of tests where it will be an incredibly bad study - particularly in areas where the influencing factors on an individuals decisions on the topic, are drastically different from those of other locations.

      • Re:What? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by pjt33 (739471) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:03PM (#43006055)

        I haven't RTFA either, but I suspect that someone along the line is overstating the point to attract attention, and that the real point is that many psychology papers extrapolate wildly from a highly biased population to universal human behaviour. Studies which use only North American subjects and claim that "people" (rather than "North Americans") statistically behave in a certain way would be one salient example, and another would be studies which use only students (easy to recruit if you're based in a university and willing to pay a very small fee for participation) and again claim that "people" behave in a certain way rather than "students at XYZ University".

        • Re:What? (Score:5, Informative)

          by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:25PM (#43006435) Homepage Journal

          Here's some figures to show you how drastic it is:

          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.

          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."

        • Re:What? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by crazyjj (2598719) * on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:39PM (#43006669)

          I haven't RTFA either, but I suspect that someone along the line is overstating the point to attract attention

          Basically, the test in question was a bribery test. People from cultures more attuned to bribery (euphemistically referred to as "gift-giving" in the study) turned out to be faster to use it and more generous with their offers. Big surprise. The more developed your country is, the less likely you are to try to openly bribe a stranger with cash. Again, big surprise. This couldn't possibly shock anyone who has been to the third world before (and had to pay regular bribes to the locals for everyday shit like "passing through your village").

          • Re:What? (Score:5, Insightful)

            by warrigal (780670) on Monday February 25, 2013 @05:42PM (#43009015)
            People from cultures more attuned to bribery (euphemistically referred to as "gift-giving" in the study)
            Or, as we call it, "tipping".
            Tipping (or "gift-giving") is a degrading and corrupting practice. It implies that the receiver is temporarily whoring himself to the tipper.
            • Re:What? (Score:5, Insightful)

              by PrimaryConsult (1546585) on Monday February 25, 2013 @06:23PM (#43009485)

              The worst thing about tipping is the stupid calculations people come up with for it... an example:
              Restaurant A: waitress is decent but rarely stops by and takes forever to fulfill simple requests like drink refills
              Restaurant B: waitress is perfectly attentive and anticipates our needs before we even realize we have them (drink refills, extra napkins, other things I can't remember).

              I gave waitress A a $2 tip, and get yelled at by my friends for under tipping.
              I gave waitress B a $3 tip and this same group of friends wants to reduce their tip accordingly because they think it is "too much".

              The difference? The meal at location A cost double what the meal at location B cost. Everyone calculates based on the price of the meal, not the quality of the service - this is what is retarded about tipping nowadays. Like expensive food is somehow more difficult to carry across the room than cheaper food.

            • That is stupid. You could apply that to all wages and bonuses. Do you turn down bonuses at work?
            • by Grishnakh (216268)

              The receiver IS temporarily whoring himself to the tipper. What makes you think they aren't?

              It's the same at any job. If I go to work at some company writing software, I'm whoring myself to that company for 8 hours/day (or more, when it's a salaried position). I do a job, I get paid for my time spent. It's the same with waiters, except they serve multiple customers at once and none of them last very long (usually an hour at most). Tipping just allows the customer to pay what they think is fair, rather t

        • by kaffiene (38781)

          So here's a crazy idea: read the fucking article before adding you ill-informed comments.

      • Re:What? (Score:5, Informative)

        by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:10PM (#43006191) Homepage

        I think they are saying, that in a couple small tests, many cultures, particularly less wealthy or more family oriented cultures, react differently than Americans, and therefore Americans make incredibly bad case studies. Bullshit.

        Yes, what you've said is bullshit, because that's not what they're saying:

        social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations

        Of all the populations they could have picked - no matter how bad it is to make such generalisations in any case - the US was the worst one to pick for making such generalisations. So you could have summed it up as:

        many cultures, particularly less wealthy or more family oriented cultures, react differently from each other, and that if you want a generalisation of the entire human population, America is the worst place to look.

        I see that it's automatically something to be offended by, though.

      • by rtb61 (674572)

        Simply reality the test subject have been corrupted by saturation 24/7/365 mass marketing designed by psychopaths with degrees in psychology to manipulate the behaviour and choices of all possible test subjects. See not so clear cut if you stop and think about it.

        Now of course the rest are catching up to the destructive saturation marketing system and are also losing normal balance. So time to stop the excesses of psychologically destructive marketing.

      • by bazmonkey (555276)

        I think they are saying, that in a couple small tests, many cultures, particularly less wealthy or more family oriented cultures, react differently than Americans, and therefore Americans make incredibly bad case studies.

        No.

        They are saying that *culture* is what decides the results to these tests, and not inherent characteristics. Their entire point is that in these couple small tests the results differed everywhere. These "couple small tests" are tests we have traditionally held to be universal. We assume, for example, that in the same circumstances the $100-problem the author described people would universally settle on offering a "fair" 50/50 trade. People didn't expect that "fairness" was subjective even in somet

    • Re:What? (Score:5, Funny)

      by PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:03PM (#43006061)

      Are they saying all the Americans are fat birds, unable to fly?

      In Third World countries, only the rich can afford to be fat.

      In America, only the rich can afford to be thin.

      And in America, almost everyone can afford to fly. Which is unfortunate, if you get the middle seat, between two fat folks.

  • by pfaffa (1236738)
    Well Duh, studying one of the richest and most powerful nation is stupid. You can only learn so much about a group studying it's extremes, not to mention powerful societies tend to do there own thing (because they don't see a need to copy things) and the longer in power the more noticeable it becomes.
    • by BatGnat (1568391)
      Rich? How many trillions of dollars in debt is the U.S.?
      • Re:duh (Score:4, Informative)

        by blueg3 (192743) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:04PM (#43007013)

        Since we're talking about sociology here, the "rich" should be referring to income and wealth of individuals (the objects being studied). So, something like GDP or GNI per capita, probably adjusted for purchasing-power parity.

        You're talking about government debt, which probably doesn't influence sociology much, unless you ask how people feel about the government's debt. But regardless, the US national debt is about 100% of GDP, depending on how you count it, which is a bit above Canada and the EU nations with good finances and a bit below some EU nations with bad finances. It's about half of Japan's debt (per GDP). (But, to be fair, it's 200 times North Korea's debt. It must be nice to be that rich.)

  • Lord Bradley: Precisely. But, if our economy was threatened, then it would be our duty to protect our intrests.
    Anna Leonowens: Our economy?! Our interests?!
    Lady Bradley: The ways of America are the ways of the world, my dear.

  • Who is human? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by csb (23046) on Monday February 25, 2013 @01:43PM (#43005715)

    If one was trying to scientifically "draw broad generalizations" about humans, why would you ever select samples from just one nation (regardless of which one)?
    Use a dozen nations, some more developed than others. Heck, use one hundred nations. How else would you be abled to defend statistically valid results?

    Leaving out any arbitrary set of 330 million humans would seem to lead you further away from meaningful conclusions. Are Americans not also human?
    Singling out one country for inclusion or exclusion sounds like something other than impartial, apolitical science for drawing "broad generalizations".

    If you don't like America (or wherever), that's fine and dandy... but please don't call your hand-picked findings the "human condition". Especially if you're going to choose the humans based upon any one individual's peculiar set of ideals.

    • Re:Who is human? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:45PM (#43006741) Homepage Journal

      Everyone is human, but Americans are outliers. If you could only study a small handful of people, they would be an awful choice. They are not representative of the average. That is one of Henrich's minor points. If you were trying to predict the average human behaviour, and had to leave out a country, the US would be one of the best choices, because it is so different.

      The trend of studying only Americans was a result of cultural blindness. Paraphrasing the article: multiculturalism purports that all cultures are unique and special and have interesting intrinsic attributes, but academics refuse to discuss them because they don't want to be accused of racism or stereotyping. To avoid the question, they assumed that everyone was alike, and just chose to study people who were readily available (usually the undergrads at their campuses.)

      Henrich et al. have shown this to be a bad decision, and have presented data that shows the study samples were not only deeply skewed by being from a Western, (culturally) European, industrialized, rich, and democratic country, but also that the United States was very atypical of other countries that met those same criteria.

      The ultimate goal of the article isn't to claim that Americans are somehow no longer worth study, though, just that you can't make assumptions about everyone else based on how they act. They're accusing everyone else of cherry-picking, and want to encourage samples from around the world to be considered equally. That being said, though, the article doesn't discourage studying any particular group: it has a couple of observations about differences amongst American populations, too.

      I'm kinda getting the vibe that you're a radical isolationist. You may wanna work on that.

      • I'm not sure you could pick any single population of people (other than the human race as a whole) and call them an "average representation." I'm guessing that in some aspects, every culture will have some attributes in which it differs markedly from the average.

        In the particular subset tested, Americans were different, but it seems to be drawing a bit of a broad brush to say that it follows that all sociological studies run on Americans will come out different, while implying that other study subjects wou

  • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot@@@hackish...org> on Monday February 25, 2013 @01:43PM (#43005721)

    The instrumental goal underlying a lot of psychology and economics research is "what should we do in the U.S.?" It's all dressed up in basic-science, idealistic language, but ultimately what the penguin taxpayers funding the research most care about is penguin economics and penguin psychology, not so much the rest of the birds...

  • FTFA:

    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."

    The big corporations were way ahead of the curve.

  • by Freddybear (1805256) on Monday February 25, 2013 @01:45PM (#43005741)

    Now scientifically proven! ;)

  • Flamebait? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 25, 2013 @01:45PM (#43005751)

    It should be possible to mod an entire article as flamebait...

    *grabs popcorn*

  • Studies show that Western urban children grow up so closed off in man-made environments that their brains never form a deep or complex connection to the natural world.

    So what does their study say about "western" who have been raised rural?

    • by Tailhook (98486)

      So what does their study say about "western" who have been raised rural?

      You may safely assume they fall under the "primitive, gun-loving hillbilly rednecks" [slashdot.org] stereotype and omit them from humanity as well. Given contemporary social science I suspect any America "raised rural" would necessarily occupy the "least human" end of the humanity continuum.

  • by mrjb (547783) on Monday February 25, 2013 @01:56PM (#43005925)
    "We aren't the world! We aren't the children! We aren't the ones who make a better day..."
    • We aren't the world, we aren't the children
      We aren't the ones who make a brighter day
      So lets stop giving
      There's a choice we're making
      We're saving our own lives
      Ain't true we'll make a better day
      Just you and me
  • by Sarten-X (1102295) on Monday February 25, 2013 @01:56PM (#43005943) Homepage

    The article isn't actually about the Western world, or how Americans are "bad study subjects". Rather, the research TFA talks about is indications that Western assumptions about cognition are based on Western culture, rather than biological design*. In essence, the researchers acknowledge that some of the basic fundamental ideas of perception may not be so fundamental.

    It really has nothing to do with Americans being inherently bad study subjects. Rather, it accuses the field of anthropology of focusing too heavily on a single (though changing) culture throughout its history. In other words, sampling bias exists.

    * "Design" In the "structure and function" sense, not the "somebody intentionally built this" sense.

    • by Sique (173459) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:15PM (#43006271) Homepage

      It really has nothing to do with Americans being inherently bad study subjects.

      It really has.

      It has a lot of words about how the Americans often are located far at one side of the bell curve and very seldom "just average humans".

    • by DeadDecoy (877617)
      To add to your statement, TFA indicates that results specifically from prisoner's dilemma are only valid for Western cultures, or rather that they haven't been thoroughly investigated in other groups. I imagine this is true for a large number of studies that perform culturally sensitive experiments such as word association, reports on participant's perceptions, etc. This is pretty much basic science, where your experimental results are true for the randomized group your sampling from but cannot be generaliz
  • No fucking shit. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by JustAnotherIdiot (1980292) on Monday February 25, 2013 @01:59PM (#43005979)

    social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations

    Uh, that's because America is diverse as fuck. Hell, humanity is diverse as fuck.
    Trying to draw accurate yet broad generalizations about humanity are impossible.

  • Holy Crap (Score:5, Informative)

    by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:02PM (#43006037)

    This summary has almost nothing to do with the underlying article, and the headline draws a completely erroneous conclusion. It isn't about Americans being bad study subjects at all, but rather the idea that extrapolating between two cultural groups that have vastly different environments is much harder than previously thought.

    • It isn't about Americans being bad study subjects at all, but rather the idea that comparing apples to oranges is much harder than previously thought.

      FTFY.

      Hmm, not sure even I realize how profound that 'correction' happens to be...

  • by WoOS (28173) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:04PM (#43006077)

    A sentence from the cited article might explain the different behaviour experienced when running the "Ultimatum" game with the Machiguenga

    The stakes Henrich used in the game with the Machiguenga were not insubstantial—roughly equivalent to the few days’ wages they sometimes earned from episodic work with logging or oil companies.

    So if one offers a valuable and rare commodity to people living a life near sustenance, one gets other results than if one does the same experiment with people who have most of their needs (over)fulfilled and do not need the stakes of the game? That is IMHO not surprising but quite in line with Maslow's hierarchy of needs [wikipedia.org].

    Maybe social scientists (and economists) should start to evaluate the context of their experiments more carefully. Alas they are missing the 'laws of nature' [slashdot.org] whose violation leads to checking every plug.

  • The article suggests that Americans are 'weird,' but it's really just a term chosen for attention. What they mean is that, Americans are one out of many culture group, and they've found in other culture groups things are different. It's quotes like this that cause people to disrespect the social sciences: Let's be charitable and suggest that the reason they didn't realize this until recently was because of a lack of grant money to study it formally?

    Research published late last year suggested psychological differences at the city level too.

    Some of the differences they've found actually are interest

  • As a foreign language instructor for adult students I've certainly struggled with the American mindset. In every class there's always a few who I call anti-culturalist. They just can't comprehend that there's other ways of doing things that aren't wrong but simply different. The more a person has traveled the less they seem to struggle with this. Everyone should spend a year or two living somewhere really foreign, that would do a lot for human relations. Maybe the size of the United States just makes th

  • As usual in most "scientific" papers, this one talks about obviousness. All cultures have their own idiosyncrasies. To use subjects from one to predicted behavior on the other is a perfect path to failure. Actually even using groups inside a given culture to predict the behavior of the whole is due to failure most of the time.
  • social science studies of Westerners — and Americans in particular — don't really tell us about the human condition

    In other words: the concept of ceteris paribus [wikipedia.org] is utter bullshit.

    Film at 11.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:32PM (#43006573) Journal
    The poverty line is defined [wikipedia.org] by our almighty government as some $ 23K/year (2012 $) for a family of four. International poverty threshold is some $ 1825 a year (2005 $). Even allowing for inflation, there is an order of magnitude different.

    In the last election cycle the Republicans tried to point out that what America calls poor would not be called poor in most other nations. But they got lots of flak and backed off. But there is some truth in noting that "there is no food in the fridge in my kitchen" sounds crazy to people who don't have homes, and those who do don't have kitchens, and those who do dont have fridges! It like the story about the poor written by a rich kid. "There was a poor man. His butler was poor, His chauffeur was poor, His cook was poor and so was his maid.

    A household barely on the poverty line in USA [givingwhatwecan.org] is richer than 80% of the world! About 10% of the world, [globalissues.org] or 700 million people or twice the population of USA, lives in less than $365 a year! Again these dollar figures are not the foreign exchange rate based dollars. These are "purchase power parity" dollars. Which means the $365 buys in the poor country, what $365 would buy in the USA.

    So the conclusions of this study are rather obvious.

  • No sh*t, Sherlock: (Score:5, Informative)

    by Hartree (191324) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:56PM (#43006891)

    In the late eighties, I (like many other undergrads) were required to "volunteer" to be the subjects of psych and sociology studies when we were in intro psychology classes.

    I talked a good bit with a particular political science prof whose specialty was survey research and the measurement of public opinion. I noted that no reasonable researcher would try to extrapolate such a biased sample to be representative of the world population. He pretty much agreed and lamented the situation.

    Yet, that was exactly what was being done. Ignoring the myriad flaws in the research I could see with just the viewpoint of participating, none of the people doing the studies that I talked to saw any reason to control for the completely unrepresentative sample.

    They were quite happy to make predictions equally about inner city youth, Appalachian rural elderly and middle aged residents of The Hamptons all from studies that were exclusively late teen early twenties college students.

    I was appalled that this "goop" might end up being used as the basis for social policy decisions.

  • by Ghostworks (991012) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:13PM (#43007129)

    The stakes Henrich used in the game with the Machiguenga were not insubstantial—roughly equivalent to the few days’ wages they sometimes earned from episodic work with logging or oil companies.

    Henrich's approach to the ultimatum game seems flawed. He mentions that he offers the equivalent of a few days wages, which is probably too much. The game is usually played for significant, but smaller sums, such as the value of a free lunch. For a sufficiently large starting sum, even tiny portions are enough to be worth something. For example, if you were asked to decide on a split of $200 out of a total $2000, you would probably want to spite the splitter. But you would also probably be overruled by your desire to get a free $200. It's only when we start looking at a smaller total with similar proportions -- say, $2 out of $20 -- that we start to see small portions being worth sacrificing to spite the other guy.

    Proportionality is a bad metric in this scenario, and he should probably use some thing like "hours of equivalent labor" instead. (And in that case, he better hope everyone is used to making equal amounts of money in such an hour, which is certainly not true in Western societies.) By sticking to proportionality as a metric long after it becomes meaningless, Henrich buries the signal in noise. He has made it too easy for the splitter to "buy off" the decider.

    The Pacific Standard description of the game also misses the point when they say that (for Western subject) the game tends towards and average 50/50 split. The average isn't nearly as interesting as the highest refused split/lowest accepted split, which tells you exactly how much someone is willing to sacrifice to spite the other party/the minimum "fair" proportion. This figure tends to be down near 30%. (It is up for debate how the subjects are internalizing this number as fair... whether it is closer to, say, "half of an even share (25%)," or "half of what the splitter makes (33.33%)," or some other figure.)

    He is correct in that it will be culturally influenced. That is a big part of the point. In fact, when the experiment was originally devised, it was considered surprising that people would refuse any split at all. It is, after all, free money split between anonymous parties in exchange for no work at all. The reason people behave in this "illogical" manner is because reputation has worth, and if you want to avoid being cheated in society, it pays to have a reputation for being spiteful and willing to take a small loss to inflict punishment on those who wrong you. No transaction happens in a vacuum. The point is that the social gaming conditioning "leaks through" into our behavior even though the experimenter has (usually) done his best to remove all social components that would reward such spiteful behavior.

    Now, Henrich has spent a few years doing this sort of thing, and it's been looked over by plenty of competent people, so I'm presuming his team's understanding is really not so shallow as it is presented here. But still, it is a bit odd to look at this collection of anecdotes that seems to demonstrate "culture matters" and come away with the conclusion that Westerners, and especially Americans, are weird. This is especially true when so many experiments of the previous century were aimed at identifying cultural behaviors and disentangling them from basic human response... in essence, all experiments which prove both that humans are similar (because they respond similarly under highly controlled conditions) and that culture matters (because that what influences them to behave slightly differently under different conditions). An experimenter has to be keenly aware of the culture under test, because experiments can amplify subtle differences if it doesn't account for them.

  • by PPH (736903) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:17PM (#43007189)

    From the experiment with the Machiguenga (follow link in summary) , the split between players matters less then it does in 'Western' (i.e. American) society. They are much more likely to share their wealth among the tribe after the game is over. So it doesn't matter who walks away with what amount during the game.

    From a practical point of view, the giver in the game has more certainty of getting his share up front than he does in trusting the (outsider) sociologist to give the remainder to the other participant as agreed. So get the money now and split it with the village afterwords.

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