Wednesday, August 25, 2010

We Are the World, But Not the Norm

Turns out that you are weird; me too. As a society, we are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic - WEIRD.

This is important beyond being a simple descriptive acronym because the vast majority of psychology experiments - the ones aimed at finding the universal truth about human behaviour - are based on us. The trouble is that "96% of behavioural science experiment subjects are from Western industrialized countries, which account for just 12% of the world's population."

So why aren't we a good ruler with which to measure all of humanity?

Adam McDowell writes in the National Post about the findings of University of British Columbia researcher Joseph Henrich and his colleagues. Their research shows that we in the West are the odd ones.

Henrich and colleagues used an experiment called the Ultimatum Game, a test of altruism, and found that we Westerners do things differently than almost every other culture worldwide. Here's how the game is played:
The Ultimatum Game works like this: You are given $100 and asked to share it with someone else. You can offer that person any amount and if he accepts the offer, you each get to keep your share. If he rejects your offer, you both walk away empty-handed.
North Americans typically offer more than people from other cultures. We also reject higher offers more often as well. How we play the Ultimatum Game makes us the weird ones.

Henrich's work has far-reaching implications because so much behavioural research is based on us.  And it goes far beyond the fact that all cultures are different. Most other cultures are the same in how they play the game, and we are different, which is not a problem unless one is trying to make universal claims about human behaviour based on us.

Understandably, there is some negative reaction to these findings: we don't like to be told that we are weird. Westerners have for centuries seen themselves as the "norm" against which all others are measured.

Our W.E.I.R.D. culture may well be superior in some ways. Our culture may well be inferior in others. The research is not a judgement about the West.

When it comes to any "norm," we are not the world. When it comes to joining with the rest of the world to help each other, we are all the world.

We are the world for Pakistan and Haiti.

Support Doctors Without Borders in Haiti


Trulyfool said...


The 'we are the world' sing-alongs always strike me as -- at best -- sentimental.

"We" aren't the world. You're exactly right.

Insofar as behavioral norms go, it may be that we respond differently to 'experiments', but frankly, whatever experimental stuff comes down the pike, I am inevitably under-awed.

It may very well -- behaviorally -- be tied to cultural norms. We can see that just by watching the cultures without necessarily determining whether there is a 'human standard'.

The 'human standard' may advance -- I know 'advance' or 'progress' are suspect terms -- through particular cultures, acculturation. We ('the West') may have been setting that standard for some time.

I was about to launch into a 'defense of the West'. I won't.

That we misconstrue other cultures is undeniable and regrettable.

That they misconstrue us is jaw-dropping.

Our power to influence them against their resistance has been causing generations of problems.

But they mistake our galumphing power with our enfranchising ideals, most of which many of those Others simply fear because of the confusion.

They -- the Many, not the Westernized elites -- have no large enough a foundation to absorb what's coming at them.

Our massive charity efforts are superlative, and people helped by those I'm sure feel the same gratitude -- and godly relief! -- that I would.

It's their powerlessness that they grieve over, and they see the powerful as culpable in positioning them there -- or at least heavily indebted and responsible for . . .

. . . for what? Helping? Leveling? Redressing? Equalizing? Conserving? Retrenching?

Each of those options carry different potential programs, differing politics.

(Sorry I went on so)

ChrisJ said...


We are magnificent, cruel, and culpable, all at the same time! And we always want to be the standard, or so it seems. I think we try to justify our position in the world by finding ourselves as the standard.

Trulyfool said...


I don't think anyone lives without making value judgments to some, and probably to a large, extent.

We have made a spectrum of them, and some of our choices have hurt some people. Some of our choices have raised a sense of dignity for yet others. And helped and hurt ourselves.

There's no good way of determining the numbers involved. If numbers are the substantial arbiter.

Our 'civilization' (I'm not meaning to puff up the rhetoric -- this is 'small c') still lives. It still feels it can learn and do.

Take it from an existential view. It's not that we want to be the standard, so we justify anything we may do in its name.

It's that we're alive and moving and being 'magnificent' as you say and 'culpable' for negligent acts as you also say. We're both the Right Hand and the Left Hand.

And as good existentialists, we do hold ourselves accountable for reckless wrongs, we do try to help enormous problems we might as soon ignore.

This is not a 'moral high ground' I'm proposing. It's an honest human recognition that (virtually) all acts help and hurt, and that we can't hide from either.

By comparison, think of . . . any . . . set of devotional beliefs. Action has been pronounced on from Day One -- or so the exegetes would have it. No growth there. Pure justification.

I hope I haven't set a bad tone for our periodic 'correspondence'. Some of this may sound sour or defensive. I don't think I'm 'rationalizing' any more than any of us living in the "First World".

We're faced with a presumptive guilt, and the question to ask is to what extent am I truly culpable and what may I do to discharge any responsibility I may have.

There's so large a set of problems, it's no wonder that some become servants of god and others become revolutionaries -- both ways shake off the burden of thinking.

Thinking this through may be impossible. Not thinking is irresponsible.

ChrisJ said...


Pretty much, I agree with you, especially that it may be impossible to think through, and irresponsible not to.

Judie said...

God help me if I ever live a normal life!

ChrisJ said...


Does this mean that you don't want to be a standard for the whole world? lol

Judie said...

This is an excellent piece of writing! I always thought I was a little weird, but now I KNOW I am.

ChrisJ said...


You are just plain special!

ChrisJ said...


You are just plain special!

Viola said...

I agree with you, but I think that it's a pity that the whole world isn't rich and educated. I especially think that it's a pity that the world is not democratic.

ChrisJ said...


Yes, it would be a very good thing.

Judie said...

Plain special? Gosh darn! I was going for outrageous! And weird! Thank you for the compliment. I think you are plain special, too!

askcherlock said...

We seem to think we are the gold standard for values, but sadly, we are not. We jump into cultures we know nothing about and try to 'democratize' them. We can't even get it right here!

ChrisJ said...


Yes, that's so true, and the cost of jumping in both in lives and dollars is enormous.