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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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  • Holy Crap (Score:5, Informative)

    by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:02PM (#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.

  • by Sique (173459) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:06PM (#43006113) Homepage

    Nuh-uh, I don't live in a community you stupid American.

    According to TFA, this makes you exceptionally close to the typical American, who have been shown to be the group of humans most likely to view themselves outside a culture or community.

  • Re:What? (Score:5, Informative)

    by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:10PM (#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 Sique (173459) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:15PM (#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 asylumx (881307) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:19PM (#43006339)
    Things the British of 1776 didn't have that the current government does:

    1. Destroyers [wikipedia.org]
    2. High-Tech Choppers [wikipedia.org]
    3. Fighter Jets [wikipedia.org]
    4. Battle Tanks [wikipedia.org]
    5. Flying Death Robots [wikipedia.org]
    The list goes on and on... Glad you think your little AR-15 is the sound of freedom, but good luck throwing off THAT government.
  • Re:What? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:25PM (#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."

  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:38PM (#43006661)

    Ummm... We certainly aren't primitive.

    Especially when you consider the subjects for most of these tests are undergraduate university students, mostly from prestigious universities.

    Anyway, if you don't want to read the article, here is are a few of the differences mentioned:

    1. Americans are more likely than any other group to be "fair" to anonymous strangers, and expect those strangers to be "fair" to them.

    2. Americans are more likely than any other group to ignore consensus, and make independent judgements.

    3. Americans are more likely than any other group to perceive "unnatural" straight lines and right angles.

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

    by Hartree (191324) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:56PM (#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.

  • Re:duh (Score:4, Informative)

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

  • by lennier (44736) on Monday February 25, 2013 @05:05PM (#43007797) Homepage

    Secondly, those combat troops would be more likely to join in overthrowing the government than they would be to shoot at American people.

    Ah, just like police riot squads would rather shoot tear gas grenades at their fellow officers than at unarmed street protesters?

  • by dkf (304284) <donal.k.fellows@manchester.ac.uk> on Monday February 25, 2013 @06:57PM (#43009205) Homepage

    The poverty line is defined 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.[...]

    Problem is, it is very hard to compare absolute poverty levels in different countries like that as the costs of things vary so widely from place to place. If it costs vastly more to house, feed and clothe your family in the US than in, say, Ecuador, that means that the level at which observed poverty (e.g., destitution) kicks in is higher in the US than in Ecuador. Whether or not it should be, that's how it is.

    The other complication is that people tend to measure social status in relative terms: how close are they to the top of the heap? They don't care about the absolute heights of other heaps in other parts of the world.

    So the conclusions of this study are rather obvious.

    Not really, because you've not explained why there are other social differences as well. The US appears to be exceptional in many ways (which would be appropriate to study the reason for) and that means that projecting results from the US to the rest of the world is tricky. Tricky enough that it's simpler to exclude the US from the input data of studies where the results are meant to be applicable to many cultures. Yes, better models wouldn't need that. But better models might also be completely intractable; that happens so easily...

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