How WEIRD are you?

January 5, 2011 by
Filed under: Design and Society, Social Economy 

Man is a rational animal – so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favour of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents.

So wrote Bertrand Russell in 1950. The idea of rational man, or homo economicus, (that people weigh up the economic costs and benefits of each choice open to them and choose the one that maximises their gain) has been widely debunked by a series of peer-reviewed papers and popular books by behavioural scientists.

But one criticism of this emerging field is that many of the studies used to support the debunking – of experiments in which people making seemingly irrational choices – tend to involve similar samples of people. A trio of behavioural scientists from the University of British Columbia report that 96% of subjects in the top psychology journals came from western industrialised countries; Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies as they dub them. But the results of these studies are too often assumed to be universally applicable.

The researchers continue to review a number of studies in which the behavioural quirks and biases investigated are compared across cultures. One of these is a visual perception bias, illustrated by the well known Müller-Lyer illusion, in which lines appear to differ in length according to arrows or tails placed on the lines.

Müller-Lyer illusion

It turns out that the effect of the “illusion” is much reduced for non-WEIRD people; it has virtually no effect on the San Foragers of the Kalahari for example. But the cohort of people from the States were the most powerfully affected by the illusion.

As the paper concludes; “Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity”.

Perhaps Bertrand Russell should have gone to the Kalahari Desert in his quest for rationality.

Comments

  • Matthew Kalman

    Hi Jamie,

    Jonathan Haidt was very taken with this critique of WEIRD.

    He wrote:
    “”The WEIRDer you are, the more you perceive a world full of separate objects,
    rather than relationships, and the more you use an analytical thinking style,
    focusing on categories and laws, rather than a holistic style, focusing on
    patterns and contexts”.

    I think Haidt might be completely wrong in this conclusion, as numerous researchers in Adult Development have found that rigid atomistic, analytical styles are exactly what fall away in the further reaches of (Western) adult development.

    I find this an optimistic indication of a potential bridging of the East-West divide.

    I did write to Haidt about this, but he’s too busy with his next book – “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” – to reply substantively…

    Matthew Kalman

    • Jamie Young

      Thanks Matthew – very interesting (do you have a link?). Relatedly (I hope) part of my work at the moment is investigating how some people become good at coming up with ingenious solutions. We’re thinking of this in a similar way to “bricolage”. One good example is Karl Duncker’s well-known candle problem. The problem illustrates how people can become fixed on an artefact’s designed purpose. One paper you may be interested in investigated whether this “functional fixedness” also existed in cultures with little technology: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/16/1/1.abstract

      • Matthew Kalman

        Hi Jamie,

        This is where I read Jonathan Haidt’s comments on this research: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality.haidt.html

        Re ingenious solutions – I don’t know if this will help you at all but Prof Clare Graves – a colleague of Maslow’s whose ideas would eventually become the ‘Spiral Dynamics’ model – found in his research with teams that those groups that were deliberately selected to include individuals at the high end of developmental maturity were far more productive at coming up with solutions to problems than groups made up of other individuals. Indeed Graves found that they were ten times more productive than the less mature stages, and would in fact find “more solutions than all the others put together”.

        This stage of maturity also “stands apart” from all the other in its “ability to move constantly from big-picture views to detailed views and back to big picture perspectives”.

        Another thought – I went to the Wellcome Gallery’s ‘High Society’ exhibition a while back, its website included this info:
        “Inequality or quality?
        If you look at the top 0.25 per cent of the population in terms of IQ, you find that five times as many patents are produced by that top quarter per cent compared to the people who are just 0.75 per cent below them,” says Professor Savulescu. “And overall, that group produce eight more than the people before them. So if you think of patents as a measure of creativity, then even a very small increase, going from the bottom quarter of the top 1 per cent to the top quarter is going to make a difference to your ability to produce valuable things for society.”

        Yikes – I feel a bit useless now… ;-)

        This, too, may be irrelevant but I was reading a blog post that mentioned bricolage today:
        http://www.cognitive-edge.com/blogs/guest/2010/12/quilts_door_knobs_and_iphones.php

        Cheers,

        Matt

        • Jamie Young

          Thanks again Matthew. You and me both!

  • Matthew Kalman

    Hi Jamie,

    Jonathan Haidt was very taken with this critique of WEIRD.

    He wrote:
    “”The WEIRDer you are, the more you perceive a world full of separate objects,
    rather than relationships, and the more you use an analytical thinking style,
    focusing on categories and laws, rather than a holistic style, focusing on
    patterns and contexts”.

    I think Haidt might be completely wrong in this conclusion, as numerous researchers in Adult Development have found that rigid atomistic, analytical styles are exactly what fall away in the further reaches of (Western) adult development.

    I find this an optimistic indication of a potential bridging of the East-West divide.

    I did write to Haidt about this, but he’s too busy with his next book – “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” – to reply substantively…

    Matthew Kalman

    • Jamie Young

      Thanks Matthew – very interesting (do you have a link?). Relatedly (I hope) part of my work at the moment is investigating how some people become good at coming up with ingenious solutions. We’re thinking of this in a similar way to “bricolage”. One good example is Karl Duncker’s well-known candle problem. The problem illustrates how people can become fixed on an artefact’s designed purpose. One paper you may be interested in investigated whether this “functional fixedness” also existed in cultures with little technology: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/16/1/1.abstract

      • Matthew Kalman

        Hi Jamie,

        This is where I read Jonathan Haidt’s comments on this research: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality.haidt.html

        Re ingenious solutions – I don’t know if this will help you at all but Prof Clare Graves – a colleague of Maslow’s whose ideas would eventually become the ‘Spiral Dynamics’ model – found in his research with teams that those groups that were deliberately selected to include individuals at the high end of developmental maturity were far more productive at coming up with solutions to problems than groups made up of other individuals. Indeed Graves found that they were ten times more productive than the less mature stages, and would in fact find “more solutions than all the others put together”.

        This stage of maturity also “stands apart” from all the other in its “ability to move constantly from big-picture views to detailed views and back to big picture perspectives”.

        Another thought – I went to the Wellcome Gallery’s ‘High Society’ exhibition a while back, its website included this info:
        “Inequality or quality?
        If you look at the top 0.25 per cent of the population in terms of IQ, you find that five times as many patents are produced by that top quarter per cent compared to the people who are just 0.75 per cent below them,” says Professor Savulescu. “And overall, that group produce eight more than the people before them. So if you think of patents as a measure of creativity, then even a very small increase, going from the bottom quarter of the top 1 per cent to the top quarter is going to make a difference to your ability to produce valuable things for society.”

        Yikes – I feel a bit useless now… ;-)

        This, too, may be irrelevant but I was reading a blog post that mentioned bricolage today:
        http://www.cognitive-edge.com/blogs/guest/2010/12/quilts_door_knobs_and_iphones.php

        Cheers,

        Matt

        • Jamie Young

          Thanks again Matthew. You and me both!