Sort of connected to the Achebe essay I’ve linked to in the post below.

Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 11.08.08 PMA MODERN LIBERAL ARTS education gives lots of lip service to the idea of cultural diversity. It’s generally agreed that all of us see the world in ways that are sometimes socially and culturally constructed, that pluralism is good, and that ethnocentrism is bad. But beyond that the ideas get muddy. That we should welcome and celebrate people of all backgrounds seems obvious, but the implied corollary—that people from different ethno-cultural origins have particular attributes that add spice to the body politic—becomes more problematic. To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those culturally derived qualities might be. Challenge liberal arts graduates on their appreciation of cultural diversity and you’ll often find them retreating to the anodyne notion that under the skin everyone is really alike.

If you take a broad look at the social science curriculum of the last few decades, it becomes a little more clear why modern graduates are so unmoored. The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors, albeit in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural imperialism.

Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.

The article is written by an American, incidentally. So when he writes “we” and “our”, Ethan Watters is referring to Americans.

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.

Watters’s entire article — a very good read and with links to some excellent papers — is here.

2 thoughts on “WEIRD and How We’re Wired

  1. [This explicit exposure of effects, however, becomes lost in Watters’ cultural diversity argument, which seems a bit superficial and dated considering the rich data he presents. In an era of pharmaceutical transgression and neo-liberal policies – both concerns that are amply acknowledged – Watters might have touched on issues of human rights, local autonomy and corporate accountability. Instead, his rationale for reconsidering the export of our mental health practices hinges on what we can learn from the ‘other’ and the potential ramifications of premature culture loss. The cultural relativism of his conclusion feels a bit disconnected – considering the dearth of evidence exposing the suffering and unconscious application he goes through great lengths to elucidate. “My point is not that they [other cultures] have it right – only that they have it different,” (p.254) feels curiously at odds with the ongoing critique of ‘Western’ ideas and the mission of the book, to take a fresh look at our own beliefs about the mind and health.]


    Watters is such a throwback to some well meaning, orientalist white dude bent on preserving oriental culture. A little googling revealed him to be a pretty sweetly conservative guy, extolling the virtues of marriage – http://www.powells.com/review/2006_03_07.html

    But in general, this reliance on evo psych bs research of joseph henrich only serves as charlatan science to reify the already popular idea that “westerners” are somehow on an essential level, different from the rest of the world. WEIRD, indeed.

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