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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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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 25, 2013 @01:33PM (#43005581)

    The internet does as well. In fact it has made the minority seem like a majority for a long time. It is amazingly easy to create an echo chamber here.

  • 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".

  • by CODiNE (27417) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:17PM (#43006305) Homepage

    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 the rest of the world seem so far away, theoretical.

  • 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: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.

  • by craigminah (1885846) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:45PM (#43006745)
    I use the three shells where I live on the east coast of America.
  • Outstanding perspective on a sensitive subject.

    I have long thought that focusing on an insistence on commonality between race because of guilt for colonial history for example was missing the point that there are cultural differences which do influence behavior.

    Now we have a valid framework to examine how cultural differences can collide and through a proper examination of cultural difference to begin to resolve problems that we have not had any mental equipment to figure out solutions to. These are groundbreaking ideas with so much promise to help us understand our divided world better.

    This isnt about how Americans, Hispanics, Blacks or Stone age tribes are wrong, its about why the error in thinking that they are all "the same underneath" has a rational explanation in cultural difference and how this is a sensible route for western analytical science to start addressing the problems that it brings.

    Great!

  • by lgw (121541) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:02PM (#43006977) Journal

    Way to entirely miss the point.

    First of all, the American rebels started with just hunting rifles, with no cannon or other serious military gear of the time. The Revolutionary War got started because, against all odds, the rebels sucessfully captured armories.

    But really, that's not the point. If you're fighting against actual military equipment, it will be a civil war, and both sides will have actual military equipment - that's not why you need an armed populace. Tyranny never starts with the Army being sent against civilians - that just defines the point at which tyranny has won.

      Tyranny starts with Brownshirts. Unofficial (but government sponsored) death squads that pull people out of their houses in the middle of the night and disappear them, or just shoot them right there in the street. That beginning is where an armed populace can fight back. There are historically only a handful of people willing to be Brownshirts. If only 10% of that armed 30% are brave enough to actually fight back, then the Brownshirts lose, and tyranny falters.

  • 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 lennier (44736) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:46PM (#43007565) Homepage

    The Revolutionary War got started because, against all odds, the rebels sucessfully captured armories.

    Well, that and massive military support from the French government. The hugely unpopular and undemocratic war debts from which campaign then led to the collapse of that government in the French Revolution. Which then led to the death of 40,000 in the Terror, the rise of the dictator Napoleon and another huge English-French world conflict. Yay freedom, I guess.

    So basically, if you want to argue from history, if a ragtag band of rebels wants to overthrow a tyrannical regime by force they pretty much have to have the support of another tyrannical regime that hates the first one and wants to use the rebels as a proxy war. But that doesn't make for a nice Hollywood movie.

  • by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Monday February 25, 2013 @04:42PM (#43008283)

    The first two seem like positive things to me.

    The point of the article is not that they are good or bad, but that they are not normal. Americans are not just different on these issues, they are the most extreme. In no other society is "fairness" to strangers more given or expected. Americans are not only more likely to offer a "fair deal" to a stranger, but they are also more likely to pay a price to punish an unfair defector.

    The researchers found that in some societies, not only is stinginess tolerated, but excessive generosity is punished. The reason given is that in these societies, accepting a gift incurs an obligation to reciprocate. So the generosity is rejected to avoid the future obligation.

    Americans are often surprised when they travel abroad, and see foreigners walk unconcerned past someone in obvious need of assistance. We are also sometimes surprised at other societies' intolerance for dissent or non-conformity. Americans say "the squeaky wheel gets the grease", but the Japanese equivalent is "the nail that sticks up will be hammered back down," which expresses the opposite sentiment.

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