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Psychology and Anthropology: A Weird Alliance? Discussion of “The Weirdest People in the World?”

Text by Franziska Boll

© Lena Bünger


Introduction

The influential metanalysis “The Weirdest People in the World?” from Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan deals with the representativeness of psychological studies, and therefore also refers to anthropological topics such as how cultural differences influence behaviour. The authors raise the important question: Are the findings from psychological studies universal, and can they be applied to all people around the world?


As a study by Jeffrey Arnett has shown, in the years 2003 to 2007 68% of the subjects for psychological studies in premier journals of the American Psychological Association (APA) came from the United States, and 96% of the subjects were from western industrialized countries (Arnett 2008, 602). To emphasize how worrying that composition of test subjects is, Henrich et al. illustrate how untypical US-Americans are, compared to the rest of the world. Their point is that WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) people are in many behavioural studies in the extreme end of the spectrum and are therefore the worst subjects to generalize from.


The basic assumption which Henrich et al. are following is that there might be differences in human mentality and behaviour across cultures. That assumption seems very plausible as there are different norms around the world which could influence the outcome of behavioural studies. Kirmayer (2013), a researcher specialized in Transcultural Psychiatry, assumes human brains change in response to experience and cultural routines, and are therefore influenced by the environment and different living conditions. “The weirdest people in the world?” deals with cultural differences around the world and how they play out in behavioural studies. As such, the article deploys an anthropological perspective on psychological studies. In what follows we will see which kind of approach is taken to connect the two disciplines.


Methodology

I would like to focus on methodological questions in “The Weirdest People in the World?”, as the authors criticize others for their insufficient methodological work. The text is very structured and subdivided into several paragraphs as common in psychological texts. Henrich et al. based their analysis on studies involving large-scale comparative experimentation, and if such comparative projects were absent, they drew on articles comparing two or three populations. The authors relied on already existing experiments coming from various subdisciplines of psychology. The studies mainly use standardized tests to shed light on topics like vision, behaviour and cognition. For example, in order to assess their visual perception, people from different societies were asked to estimate when two lines in an optical illusion seemed to have the same length (Segall et al. 1996).

Using a lot of different studies from various researchers raises the question whether they are comparable. For instance, the age of the contestants of two experiments might be very different and cause variations. Variations between two countries might therefore not be attributable to cultural differences but to a different composition of the test subjects regarding their age or gender.


Baumard and Sperber of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology in Oxford also question in their commentary on “The Weirdest People in the World?” whether the experiments can be translated across contexts. They comment on the ‘Ultimatum Game’ in which the participants are confronted with an artificial situation on how to distribute a sum of money (2012, 24). As people lack context to make decisions, they might interpret the situation differently across cultures. This opens up the possibility that behavioural differences observed in the ‘Ultimatum Game’ are not due to psychological differences per se, but rather due to different interpretations of the situation (ibid., 25). Henrich et al. react to the commentary and justify the experiment as they claim that further tests have shown that giving more context doesn't change the observed outcomes. Also, they used experts on each local culture and qualitative ethnographic information to assess local meanings and interpretations. This questions the validity of standardized tests across cultures and it can start a discussion about methods in general.


While Baumard and Spencer would prefer qualitative ethnographic fieldwork, Henrich et al. argue that a combination of ethnographic fieldwork and psychological tests should be used. But it seems that they have a different understanding of fieldwork compared to many anthropologists, as they argue for quantitative and comparable data: “Ethnographic work must be based on systemic, quantitative, and replicable research protocols that quantify the theoretically relevant aspects of life” (Henrich et al. 2010, 55). They call postmodernism an “intellectually destructive epidemic” and argue against “greater reliance on ethnographic impressionism” (ibid.). I don´t think that anthropology needs to be afraid of numbers and dismiss standardized tests. But emic perspectives have to be considered as well as the possibilities that tests are interpreted differently. There are other potential points of critique in “The Weirdest People in the World?” from an anthropological perspective that I would like to discuss in the following.

Non-American Researchers

Using diverse groups of test subjects is surely a very good suggestion. But I don´t think that it is sufficient, because non-Americans should also run more studies. Not just the test results, but also the questions the researchers come up with might be culturally biased. Scientists with diverse cultural contexts could provide different questions and approaches. For example, the behavioural sciences have so far shown a rather limited interest in topics like kinship and religion. Meadon and Spurret from the school of Philosophy and Ethics in Durban, South Africa argue for a long-term inter-institutional collaboration between western and non-western universities, focusing on learning opportunities to proceed in both directions in order to increase the number of psychological studies conducted by non-western researchers (2010, 45).

The Acronym WEIRD

Almost no one in the comments on the article can refrain from making a pun about weirdness – the acronym WEIRD surely is very catchy. However, the terms to describe how US-American citizens differ from other people (namely western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) are mostly pretty flattering and portray inequalities from an American perspective. Although a certain provocation is surely intended by the authors, there could also be alternatives that take perspectives from other countries into account. On his blog about Neuroanthropology, Downey, a professor of anthropology at Macquarie University, jokingly suggests the following acronym to better describe US-American college students: “Materialist, Young, self-Obsessed, Pleasure-seeking, Isolated, Consumerist, and Sedentary (MYOPICS)” (2010).

Terminology

“The Weirdest People in the World?” is structured by comparisons between groups. The authors first look at industrialized societies versus small-scale societies, then move on to compare western with non-western societies, and finally juxtapose contemporary Americans with the rest of the world. They highlight the difference between “industrialized” or “complex” societies and “small-scale societies” as well as “western” countries and the rest. As a result, they set up a dichotomy that is questionable.


As an illustration, they compare a general study (standing for industrialized societies) with a study about rural Native Americans in Wisconsin and one about the Yukatek Maya in Mexico which are being exemplified as small-scale societies. It is disputable how much Native Americans and the Yukatek Maya have in common and how much they have in common with other “small-scale” societies. As Asuti and Bloch, two anthropologists, write in their comment: “This uncritical lumping together of a variety of disparate societies is particularly odd in a paper that denounces unsound generalizations” (2010, 24). They also call the labels “simplistic and under-theorized” (ibid.). Henrich et al. react to their comment and argue that they just adopted the categories which were used in the studies and that they displayed data whenever possible to show differences within the category of small-scale societies. But they still structure their entire text along these categories.


I am not a fan of the many anthropological texts using “western” set in quotation marks and emphasizing that it is a discursive construct but nevertheless using it. This shows that apparently some differentiation is needed as the words cannot be avoided. But I think that there would have been different possibilities to structure the “The Weirdest People in the World”. For example, the authors analyse how children in “industrialized” and “small-scale” societies categorize animals. But there are also so called “industrialized” societies which have a lot of exposure to nature. A child living in Norway in a small village might also have a better understanding of animals than a child growing up in a big city. One possibility to structure the text might have been to distinguish between the city and the countryside when applicable. In my opinion the categories used are not sufficient without further explanation, and might even project stereotypical images.

In that sense of line, I also got the impression that “small-scale societies” are classified as out of time. Concerning the IQ scores in tests Henrich et al. state: “(…) it seems plausible that Americans of only 50 or 100 years ago were reasoning in ways much more similar to the rest of the non-western world than Americans of today” (2010, 18). This comment implicitly sets Americans 50 to 100 years ahead of the “non-western” world. The word “still” in the next sentence also implies that “small-scale” societies might reach the same level as “industrialized societies” one day: “Rather, through the course of this history, and in some contemporary societies still (accentuation by the author), children have typically grown up in mixed-age playgroups, where they received little active instruction or exposure to books or TV (…)” (ibid, 20).

Universal And Non-universal Traits

Another point that could be criticized from an anthropological perspective is that Henrich et al. assume that it is possible to differentiate between universal and non-universal traits. Here, I would like to point out that the world is interconnected and that there is an exchange between cultures that cannot be marked off clearly. With transnational connections and especially exchange and circulation of images, it will be hard to pinpoint exactly which trait is universal and which one might be affected by cultural influences. For instance, Henrich et al. point out that there are similarities in men’s preferred waist-to-hip ratios in potential mates in both industrialized and developing large-scale populations. This might be rather a preference due to the consumption of similar media and images than a universal and evolutionary trait.

Conclusion

The conclusion that Henrich et al. draw is that journal editors should require more detailed information on subject-pool composition. Also, research programs should emphasize large-scale, interdisciplinary studies that use different methodological tools, including quantitative and qualitative ethnography. I think the point Henrich et al. make is very important as they show how psychological studies might reflect a biased point of view. Henrich et al. manage to draw attention to the one-sided subject-pool composition and to illustrate potential differences in human behaviour across cultures. Their analysis is an example for successful interdisciplinary work, although from an anthropological perspective there are still some points up for discussion. Especially the assumption that “small-scale” societies will develop into “industrialized” societies and the implicit assumption of such a cultural evolution is very questionable from an anthropological point of view. Another disagreement regarding the methodology in an interdisciplinary approach is how intensive the fieldwork should be and how many generalizations can be made based on the research.

References

Arnett, Jeffrey. 2008. The Neglected 95%: Why American Psychology Needs to Become Less American. American Psychologist 63 (7): 602-614.


Asuti, Rita; Maurice Bloch. 2010. Why a Theory of Human Nature Cannot be Based on the Distinction Between Universality and Variability: Lessons From Anthropology. Behavioral And Brain Sciences 33 (2/3): 23-24.


Baumard, Nicolas; Dan Spencer. 2010. Weird People, yes, but Also Weird Experiments. Behavioral And Brain Sciences 33 (2/3): 24-25.


Downey, Greg. 2010. We Agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD Enough? In: Neuroanthropology. https://neuroanthropology.net/2010/07/10/we-agree-its-weird-but-is-it-weird-enough/ (20.05.2019).


Henrich, J., S. J. Heine and A. Norenzayan. 2010. The Weirdest People in the World? Behavioral And Brain Sciences 33 (2/3): 1-75.


Meadon, Michael; David Spurret. 2010. It’s not just the Subjects – There are Too Many WEIRD Researchers. Behavioral And Brain Sciences 33 (2/3): 44-45.


Kirmayer, Laurence. 2013. Critical Neuroscience 2: An Overview. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKTeELTa2EU (20.05.2019).

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