Why Americans Are So WEIRD, And What It Means For Behavioral Science

So many foundational findings in cognition are based on Western subjects. The biases that induces might be larger than anyone realizes.

To be fair, WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. But according to a growing body of research, Americans are also the uncapitalized kind of weird.

A lengthy article in Pacific Standard discusses the work of three University of British Columbia scientists who have discovered that long-held assumptions about universal behavior are deeply biased toward Westerners, and Americans in particular: Amongst six top psychology journals, 96% of the subjects tested in recent studies were Westerners, and almost 70% were from the United States. Now, these researchers are running cognitive studies in communities all around the world, and finding that basic assumptions about how the human brain perceives the world (and itself) differ from culture to culture.

These differences go deep and include things like visual perception. When shown the Müller-Lyer illusion, most Americans get it wrong—they think the first arrow is longer. Ethan Watters explains:

The different ways people perceive the Müller-Lyer illusion likely reflects lifetimes spent in different physical environments. American children, for the most part, grow up in box-shaped rooms of varying dimensions. Surrounded by carpentered corners, visual perception adapts to this strange new environment (strange and new in terms of human history, that is) by learning to perceive converging lines in three dimensions.

Which isn’t to say that these differences are genetic—rather, they’re handed down culturally. Referring to one test that gauges social fairness, the authors noticed that American subjects were more likely to "punish" those who were unfair.

Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries that had been refined and handed down through thousands of generations in ever more complex market economies. When people are constantly doing business with strangers, it helps when they have the desire to go out of their way (with a lawsuit, a call to the Better Business Bureau, or a bad Yelp review) when they feel cheated. Because Machiguengan culture had a different history, their gut feeling about what was fair was distinctly their own. In the small-scale societies with a strong culture of gift-giving, yet another conception of fairness prevailed. There, generous financial offers were turned down because people’s minds had been shaped by a cultural norm that taught them that the acceptance of generous gifts brought burdensome obligations. Our economies hadn’t been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was the other way around.

There’s plenty more interesting information about the research, but perhaps the most intriguing bit deals with how Americans differ from all other cultures—even fellow WEIRD ones.

In the end they titled their paper "The Weirdest People in the World?" (PDF) … 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.'

This kind of research is causing scientists—not just social ones but neuroscientists and economists, too—to rethink the foundations of their disciplines. For the past three or four decades, academia has been hell bent on making up for the imperialism of scientists past, pursuing studies that focus on universal human traits. But in the process of scrubbing every last bias from their research, they’ve failed to notice the bias of culture, lingering right under their noses.

Check out the full story here.

[ILLUSTRATION: Liberty via Shutterstock]

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