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Stats Science

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

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 ByOhTek ( 1181381 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:28PM (#43005533) Journal

    Ummm... We certainly aren't primitive.

    As far as gun loving rednecks, that's just a small, overly-vocal part of our community. Every community has the small group of overly vocal nut-jobs that makes them look bad. Hell, yours has you, doesn't it?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:36PM (#43005647)

    small? there are 300 million guns in this country.

  • Re:What? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ByOhTek ( 1181381 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:36PM (#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.


    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.

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

    by csb ( 23046 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:43PM (#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.

  • 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...

  • Flamebait? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:45PM (#43005751)

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

    *grabs popcorn*

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:48PM (#43005807)

    Around half of your voting population continually chooses the GOP. Ignore the theoretical ideals you place on the GOP, listen to what the candidates say and how they try to obtain votes. Do it objectively and critically. I think that says it all.

    I'm not saying the Dem's are any better, they're not, but they do make appeals to a more sophisticated electorate as well as pandering to the lowest common denominator.

    It's all lies on both sides, but as an outsider, the GOP are certainly far more primitive than their counterparts in Europe for example.


    I recently took a personally antithetical subjective look at some conservative blogs recently, allowing myself to be sucked into it, trying to believe it, and agree with it. It was a very scary experience, and that's what I ended up seeing that kind of culture does, instilling fear to manipulate people against their own interests and their own peers, because of different religion, social norms or the apparently abhorrent idea of peaceful resistance or a workforce strike.

    The GOP ideology would appear to be, you either walk away (quit your unfair employment, leave the country or similar), or you kill or threaten with violence the people you disagree with. Having an informed, reasoned discussion where everyone can put their viewpoints across, and people can be called up on misinformation never seems to enter into it. It's always about about 'gut feelings' and just 'knowing whats right'.

  • by DFurno2003 ( 739807 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:51PM (#43005847)
    Rednecks are a very small part of the gun culture. They happen to be the most vocal of us. Kind of like how the really weird and disgusting LGBTQ people seem to be the most vocal of those people.
  • Re: duh (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:54PM (#43005889)

    You mean studying a country that thinks and behaves like it is rich while actually being flat broke (actually way way way beyond flat broke and into "insanely reckless" territory) while continuing to waste trillions of dollars on un productive activities.

  • by Sarten-X ( 1102295 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:56PM (#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.

  • No fucking shit. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by JustAnotherIdiot ( 1980292 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @02:59PM (#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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:01PM (#43006031)

    Roughly 30% of the population was all it took to throw the British out on their ear. It may be a minority in terms of simple math but in all reality having 30 percent of a people invested into any ideaology in a society of our nature is substantial at the same time.

  • by WoOS ( 28173 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:04PM (#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 [].

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

  • Re:What? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:06PM (#43006105) Homepage Journal

    They are saying Americans are not human, apparently, or at least, have no human characteristics..

    Hmm, based on your post, I would posit that wherever you're from, the people there can't read a full article and come to a proper conclusion.

  • by Sarten-X ( 1102295 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:07PM (#43006119) Homepage

    The US is completely fractured ... To try to come to conclusions with that - and I haven't read the article, but I'll wager it's a very small sample size - is ludicrous.

    You're simultaneously completely missing the point of TFA, and yet hitting it dead on. According to TFA, not only aren't Americans uniformly distributed, but the whole world isn't, in ways that haven't been considered before. Certain assumptions, like having a perception based on interpreting straight lines in a 3D context, turn out to only be valid among a Western population who, for example, grew up with straight walls. The researchers in TFA aren't saying that Americans are particularly bad study subjects, but rather that even basic perceptions long thought to be universal are really influenced by culture.

  • by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:23PM (#43006395) Journal

    Us penguins use our penguin research to try and extrapolate how we should help African Swallows.
    No wonder our attempts at shaping non-Western countries has spectacularly and repeatedly failed.

  • by CanHasDIY ( 1672858 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:24PM (#43006413) Homepage Journal

    Rednecks are a very small part of the gun culture. They happen to be the most vocal of us. Kind of like how the really weird and disgusting LGBTQ people seem to be the most vocal of those people.

    I assume this is at -1 for Unpleasant Truth?

    It never ceases to amaze me how self-proclaimed "intellectuals" have the exact same hangups about unpleasant but true speech as all the folks they like to pretend they outsmart.

  • Re:Wow! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Internetuser1248 ( 1787630 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:28PM (#43006495)

    This headline is the most hateful and prejudiced comment about Americans I have heard all day!

    Wow, you must live a very sheltered existence. I would be flattered if someone said that about me. I don't want to represent the average.

    Just to make your day even more interesting: I have noticed at least 3 posts from people living in the US who took offence at this article. This means that some >0 percentage of the US population who can both read and write, either don't know what "make bad study subjects" means, or they aspire for their nation to be totally average in every way.

    There, what I just wrote is now the most hateful and prejudiced comment about 'Americans' you have heard all day.

  • by PRMan ( 959735 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:31PM (#43006559)

    Winning wars happens when the soldiers with the above decide they like the rebels better than the entrenched government. That's what happened in the US Revolution and many other successful revolutions.

    If you really think a government run by the MAFIAA, banks, etc. is going to remain more popular than one that opposes them forever if they continue to turn the screws, you will be very surprised someday when the tides suddenly turn.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:32PM (#43006573) Journal
    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.

    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 [] is richer than 80% of the world! About 10% of the world, [] 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.

  • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @03:53PM (#43006855)

    I assume this is at -1 for Unpleasant Truth?

    It never ceases to amaze me how self-proclaimed "intellectuals" have the exact same hangups about unpleasant but true speech as all the folks they like to pretend they outsmart.

    You sure are reading a whole lot of context into nothing more than a couple of down-mods. What do you make of the fact that the original post about "gun-loving hill billy rednecks" was also down-modded to -1? How do you know it wasn't "self-proclaimed intellectuals" who did that too because they realize that neither stereotype is particularly accurate?

  • by Rich0 ( 548339 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @04:14PM (#43007135) Homepage

    The British of 1776 didn't need any of that stuff - they didn't really lose any major battles other than Yorktown, and they only had that because of the intervention of the French navy. If it weren't for the French that battle would not have been decisive, but the overall outcome of the war would probably not have changed much (though it might have been more drawn out, or diplomatic in resolution - which could have made the US look more like one of the Commonwealth nations).

    The American Revolution is a classic example of how you can win almost every battle and yet lose a war. 30% of the population being armed means that anything an opposition army does results in LOTS of people dying on all sides. Sure, you can bomb cities into ruins, but you can't just march in and take over with any kind of continuity. Few really want to stomach that kind of mess, so there are limits on what any government can accomplish. The British might have won Lexington/Concord, but 300 casualties in a single day wasn't really anything the citizens back home really wanted to hear about, and it just set the tone for the entire war.

    Just look at Iraq. It isn't exactly smooth sailing for the US over there despite a huge advantage in military power.

  • by xevioso ( 598654 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @04:16PM (#43007173)

    I'm sick and tired of people who believe that US governmental tyranny exists talking about it as though it is a Us vs Them argument.

    In the real world, not some fantastical universe you have created, but in the REAL world, there exists an extremely large portion of the population who does, (or who will, in this universe you have created) agree with the government. They may agree that your guns should be taken away from you, or that you should no longer be able to ban gays from marrying, or that you should not be able to have tax-free churches any more...all of which are things, by the way, that many tea-tards have used as example of "tyranny" by the government.

    In the REAL world, if you were to rise up against this government, you'd also be rising up against the (approximately) half of the US population that put that government in place.

    This is not called "rising up against an oppressive government."

    This is known as a CIVIL WAR, and we've already had one.

    So think about that the next time you want to "rise up against the government." You'd actually be rising up against a whole lot of average americans who VOTED to put that government in place, and if you think they will take kindly to your attempts to "take your country back", you will have another thing coming.

  • Re:What? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by warrigal ( 780670 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @06:42PM (#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 @07:23PM (#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.

  • Re:What? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by readin ( 838620 ) on Monday February 25, 2013 @11:17PM (#43011117)
    The interesting question then is which came first? In developed societies are people more likely to punish cheats at their own expense because they are rich and can afford to do so, or did the societies become rich due to the cultures' devotion to fairness and doing one's civic duty?

In seeking the unattainable, simplicity only gets in the way. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982