The strangeness of being WEIRD

by John MacBeath Watkins

There's a psychology paper out called The Weirdest People in the World? which explores the different ways that different societies construct reality. It has some empirical proof of some of the things I've discussed in our The Strangeness of Being Human series of posts.

First of all, the structuralist notion of how language gives us the categories we use to think has spread to most of the social sciences. Joe Henrich was doing field work as an anthropologist when he decided to test the universality of human notions of fairness by giving a fairly standard test to the Machiguenga, a people who live north of Machu Picchu in the Amazon rain forest. The test he gave them is called the prisoner's dilemma, modified so that he was offering the subjects money rather than offering to deprive them of their freedom. This is fairly standard, because the usual subjects of psychological tests -- psychology undergraduates -- cannot readily be imprisoned by their instructors or graduate students.

So, instead of offering to imprison the subjects unless they cooperate with each other, the test involved giving them money to divide, with the understanding that one person would offer some portion of the money, and the other would decide whether to accept the offer, with the understanding that neither would get any money if the offer was refused.

It had been thought a matter of settled science that human beings insist on fairness in the division, or will punish the offering party by refusing to accept the offer. This was thought an interesting result, because economics would predict that accepting any offer is better than rejecting an offer of some money.

But the Machiguenga acted in a more economically rational manner, accepting any offer, no matter how low.

“They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game,” Henrich said.

That was a startling result in an experiment that had been tried probably thousands of times with consistent results. Startling enough that Henrich was able to land a MacArthur Foundation grant to try the experiment in a variety of cultures.

He tried it in 14 other small-scale societies and found that no response was universal.

Now, there's a thing called the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, which speculates that language has such a strong influence on the way we construct reality that people whose language categorizes things differently might even see them differently. A lot of the research on this, strangely enough, has focused on how people see color.

It makes a great deal more sense to suppose that the way people construct their notions of fairness is subject to Sapir-Whorf. But the entire notion that human beings might be different in different societies fell into disrepute in anthropology, based on the ethnocentric work done by some early researchers.

The disrepute was sufficient that the anthropology department at the University of British Columbia wouldn't hire Joe Henrich. Instead, the university created a position for him in which he found himself working with the psychology department, in particular with Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan, his co-authors in writing The Weirdest People in the World?  The title refers to the acronym Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

Not all the influences they found appeared to be from language. WEIRD people grow up on a man-made environment with less contact with the natural world than most people through history and through the rest of the world, for example.

From the article linked earlier:

While studying children from the U.S., researchers have suggested a developmental timeline for what is called “folkbiological reasoning.” These studies posit that it is not until children are around 7 years old that they stop projecting human qualities onto animals and begin to understand that humans are one animal among many. Compared to Yucatec Maya communities in Mexico, however, Western urban children appear to be developmentally delayed in this regard. Children who grow up constantly interacting with the natural world are much less likely to anthropomorphize other living things into late childhood.

I suppose the folkbiological reasoning step is where people start saying of their pets "he thinks he's people!" rather than just thinking they are people.

The work opens up a field of study that is of interest to me -- how cultures adapt us to the world.

From the same article:

Henrich has challenged this “cognitive niche” hypothesis with the “cultural niche” hypothesis. He notes that the amount of knowledge in any culture is far greater than the capacity of individuals to learn or figure it all out on their own. He suggests that individuals tap that cultural storehouse of knowledge simply by mimicking (often unconsciously) the behavior and ways of thinking of those around them. We shape a tool in a certain manner, adhere to a food taboo, or think about fairness in a particular way, not because we individually have figured out that behavior’s adaptive value, but because we instinctively trust our culture to show us the way.

Most really good ideas are simple. This one, that culture is a storehouse of knowledge, is one of the founding ideas of conservatism, as anyone who has read Edmund Burke is aware. Modernist, rationalist approaches to knowledge are just catching up with this. It seems curious to me that conservatism has not adopted a structuralist approach, but like the Marxists before them, they have an ideological aversion to one of its claims. Just as the Marxist approach says that people will act rationally to overthrow their masters, and are suffering from false consciousness if they fail to, many influential American conservatives believe that people will act rationally based on their self-interest. The sort of organic conservative Burke was has little to do with the libertarian-tinged completion of modern American conservatism.

So I suppose it is left to pragmatists to explore the mystery of the structure of human thought, a structure that shapes all our minds but cannot be entirely contained in one mind. At the point where one mind could not hold all the knowledge of a culture, we became that strange creature whose mind swims in a sea of symbolic meaning that we call human, and a rich and strange world it is.

Interesting infographic here:

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self


  1. Thank you for a very interesting essay, John! Just out of curiosity- do you believe humans have 'instincts'? Bridget

  2. Of course we have instincts, all animals do. As Hume said, reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions. Without the instinct to seek warmth, food, and sex, the species would dither about what to do with itself and probably become extinct.

    The question is, what parts of us are universal, and part of being the mammal that we are, and what parts are constructed through culture?

  3. Well, we certainly have impulses. But instinct? I'm not so sure. I always thought, based upon the studies of animal behaviorists and zoologists, that humans distinctly lack knowledge when they are born. Perhaps more study needs to be devoted to the difference, if there is any, between impulse and instinct.

  4. Furthermore, the cultural studies you referenced, wherein 'fairness' is not some immutable, inborn human trait, leads me to believe that- like you asserted- humans learn far more than they 'know innately'. But I say this questioningly- because I wonder then about how it is that we have survived as a species if we have not been true to some imperatives imposed upon us by our nature. Interesting questions, and again, I thank you for a thought provoking essay. As always, you bring up great questions.

  5. We learn a great deal, and my focus is on what we learn and in what ways we construct reality, but we are still medium-sized mammals with all the instincts of a mammal. Even people who have no desire to procreate feel terribly deprived if they cannot engage in instinctive procreational activities. Look at the popularity of means for engaging in these activities without producing offspring. It's the old pleasure principle; if our instincts are to do something, nature makes us enjoy it, so we'll do it as much as we can.

    The 'tabula rasta' hypothesis, that we are a blank slate, had a great deal of currency when I was young. But there are things that seem most certainly to be instinctive, and things that are learned. The XKCD cartoon has a point: We have an instinct to affection for certain people in our lives, and sometimes our over-trained intellect causes us to overthink, interfering with our instinctive desires.

    The question is, what is instinctive and what is a social construct? The fairness test was a way of getting at this, but because they tested people only from one culture, psychologists were fooled into thinking that in this case, they were testing instinctive behavior when it was in fact a social construct. This is something neurologists are realizing they are going to have to take into account in their experimental work.

    If you look at the series of posts on the strangeness of being human and the series on rethinking liberal theory, you'll see where I'm coming from. Liberalism's project is to determine what government is suited to human nature, but it is based on a 17th century notion of what human nature is. My view is that spirituality is based on language, as described in this post:

    But reason started becoming our dominant mode of organizing our world during the Enlightenment. At that point, people started thinking for themselves about religion, splintering it and leaving us with a situation where the faith-based governments of the past were lacking in legitimacy. That old materialist and blasphemer, Thomas Hobbes, came up with a way to base government on reason, assuming that its purpose was to serve mankind rather than God. That led to the series of posts starting with this one:

    But however well we reason, we are mammals with a mind that swims in a sea of symbolic meaning, not minds that just happen to have a body. Our culture contains, from an organic conservative point of view, the wisdom of a civilization, and from the rationalist point of view, the superstitions and prejudices of an unreasoning mob. How are we to know what traditions are wisdom, and what reforms are wisdom, and what traditions and seemingly rational constructs are harmful? In a rapidly-changing world, we need to be able to tell, because we can no longer rely entirely on the experience of the past to adapt and survive. What guides us to the good?

    Well, as David Hume observed, the passions are what motivate us. Those passions are emotions based on our instincts and influenced by our cultural construction of reality. In the end, moral constructs like fairness are an example of this. We have our instinctive need to work with other humans to build our lives, and the greatest source of happiness most people report comes from relationships with other people. But the instinct only gives us the urge. We make a social construct, a narrative about how we should act and expect others to act, to find a way to achieve the goal basic human biology has given us.

  6. The "WEIRD" paper is really pretty fascinating, particularly where it merges into morality and what we have done with cultural differences in perception. Here's an infographic I just finished on the topic. Take a gander if you would like:

    1. Thanks, I've added a clickable link in the post. Hope it steers you some traffic.


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