Being an outlier isn't weird when the norm is nasty, brutish, and short

02/26/13 21:30:00    

By Michael Mealling

This morning I ran across this piece from Pacific Standard Magazine:

We Aren’t the World Joe Henrich and his colleagues are shaking the foundations of psychology and economics—and hoping to change the way social scientists think about human behavior and culture.]

The gist of the article is that the authors of a new paper suggest that much of the anthropological research of the past fifty years may be fatally flawed. The basis for the conclusion is summed up here:

The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences—particularly in economics and psychology—relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments. At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.

While these were the general findings it is the consequences that are important:

The growing body of cross-cultural research that the three researchers were compiling suggested that the mind’s capacity to mold itself to cultural and environmental settings was far greater than had been assumed. The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do—the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like—but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception.

but most importantly for the field of anthropology and psychology:

It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. 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.” 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.

While IANACA (I Am Not A Cultural Anthropologist), one of the things I take from the paper and this article is that culture affects cognition enough that it affects economic decisions (i.e. butting up against behavioral economics) and therefore some cultures end up developing economic systems that are more prone to advancement than others. Take the Machiguenga for example, they “had traditionally been horticulturalists who lived in single-family, thatch-roofed houses in small hamlets composed of clusters of extended families. For sustenance, they relied on local game and produce from small-scale farming. They shared with their kin but rarely traded with outside groups.” In other words, their culture had not changed significantly since the invention of agriculture and language. Their culture and thus cognition were so perfectly adapted to their environment that they had no need to develop further. Their system is an evolutionary dead-end. In order for it to still exist today it must keep itself as isolated as possible.

My conclusion? Some cultures are capable of surviving in a technological world and some aren't. Not because of anything complicated but because they are just cognitively incompatible. For the same reason that Amazon tribes that don't count past the number three will never develop or understand calculus. As a species we have two choices: we can shrink our numbers back to neolithic levels and live unchanging lives like the Machiguenga or we can grow and evolve. As we've seen in the past few hundred years, the cognitive, cultural and economic systems behind technological progress and yes, Western concepts of capitalism, are what allowed us to support billions of people in lifestyles that are the exception. Unlike much of the nasty, brutish, and short lives most of humanity has lead, the past few hundred years have been a marvelous time in human history. Most of the people alive today are outliers given human history.

So, unlike the author of the Pacific Standard article who wrote

“Still, I had to wonder whether describing the Western mind, and the American mind in particular, as weird suggested that our cognition is not just different but somehow malformed or twisted. In their paper the trio pointed out cross-cultural studies that suggest that the “weird” Western mind is the most self-aggrandizing and egotistical on the planet: we are more likely to promote ourselves as individuals versus advancing as a group.”

I am proud that we are a country of outliers. Given human history we certainly need to optimize for the outliers, not the 'norm'. We may not be “the world” but we are certainly a template worthy of emulating. If that's “weird” then count me in. I'm going to try and be as weird as possible.

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