Cross-cultural universals? that’s WEIRD!

I think we can recover from the article linked to below an interesting and possibly new fallacy.  It’s the fallacy of inferring that a trait is universal from the  fact that it is found in college studients in WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich) societies.  We can call it the Weird fallacy.

An article forthcoming in Brains and Behavioral Sciences:

“The Weirdest People in the World?”

Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan

Abstract (short):  Broad claims about human psychology and behavior based on narrow samples from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies are regularly published in leading journals.  Are such species-generalizing claims justified?  This review suggests not only that substantial variability in experimental results emerges across populations in basic domains, but that WEIRD subjects are in fact rather unusual compared with the rest of the species-frequent outliers.  The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, categorization, spatial cognition, memory, moral reasoning and self-concepts.  This review (1) indicates caution in addressing questions of human nature based on this thin slice of humanity, and (2) suggests that understanding human psychology will require tapping broader subject pools.  We close by proposing ways to address these challenges.

Here’s the article; you might find the authors claim there are more universals than you want, but it is still interesting. 

If you’ve followed discussions of modularity and vision, you might want to know that the news about early vision is less of a surprise than the article appears to suggest.  Hard-wired settings may be post-natal and depend on the environment.  On the other hand, things they agree are found in most human beings – e.g., passing the false belief test – have much more age variability than I at least had heard of.  And the experimental work on  fairness – very recently presented  in the  NY Times as culturally invariant – show a lot of cross-cultural variation.  And there’s more.

See what you think!

3 thoughts on “Cross-cultural universals? that’s WEIRD!

  1. I’ve noticed that experimental philosophers tend to make the same methodological mistake. But since the best experimental philosophy, at least so far, makes largely negative claims — eg, concepts like phenomenal consciousness aren’t used in the kinds of stable and universal ways philosophers generally assume — there’s reason to hope that the methodological mistake doesn’t lead X-phi-ers into the full-blown WEIRD fallacy.

  2. Hi Noumena,

    Perhaps we should think of experimental philosophers as infected by the fallacy.

    You might want to look at the Nagel article linked to in the post about what to do with your extra hour, if you have much interest in phenomenal consciousness. Galen Strawson’s introspective reports are VERY different.

    Did anyone volunteer to write about aggression in philosophy with you? You might want to note what was said about Carole Lee’s work in the first hypatia conference post.

  3. I like the discussion of analytic versus holistic reasoning: apparently it’s very culturally variable, and there’s especially a difference between Americans and people from many East Asian countries. I think this blows the Larry Summers-type view out of the water. In the first place, it shows that preference for analytic vs. holistic reasoning is likely culturally determined (not innate). Second, people raised in East Asian cultures are well-represented in math and the hard sciences; somehow they managed to be successful even with their background in holistic reasoning. So, the lack of gender diversity in these fields is almost certainly due to other things (bias, discrimination, etc.), and not an innate difference in men’s and women’s reasoning skills.

Comments are closed.