Dr. Grossi's Blog


Dr. Philip Grossi
Tuesday, 17 August 2010

 In the June issue of Behavioral and Brain Science,  Heine, Henrich, and Norenzayan published a disquieting article that has the effect of undermining the confidence of readers of psychological research.  Psychologists very often do their research on willing undergraduates at universities.  The drawback to this approach that they elucidate in the article is simply that this pool of subjects are overwhelmingly from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic cultures (WEIRD).  The authors argue that this group is not representative and that making claims about human behavior based on them is likely to be incorrect. They show that WEIRDos are in fact unusual when compared to adults and children in other societies.

It has always been assumed that there are some minor cultural deviations but that fundamentally groups are representative.  This paper challenges that core assumption by showing statistical differences in visual perception, conceptions of self, reasoning styles, and self-concepts.  They show the Muller-Lyer illusion and then discuss the statistical difference in the perception of the length of the lines in children and adults from sixteen different cultural areas.  Generally in Western industrialized societies one line looks shorter that the other, however, in smaller societies the illusion is less powerful.

illustration to WEIRDos blogIn 1967 Jones and Harris co-authored a paper which led to the idea which was later to be called fundamental attribution error.  Subjects were asked to rate people who spoke in favor of Castro and those who spoke against him. Naturally they rated those that spoke in favor of Castro as having positive feelings toward him and those who spoke against him as being negative toward him.  When told their positions were determined by a coin toss, they did not change their ratings.  In other words they could not change their belief that the speakers were expressing their internal feelings.  This was later called fundamental attribution error which is defined as granting too much weight to internal value or personality factors and too little weight external or situational factors in explaining the behavior of others. Heinrich and colleagues point out that this is a lot less true outside of WEIRD societies.

While there are some domains where small-scale societies are similar to large industrialized societies, there are other domains where there are differences e.g., the importance of choice, independent/interdependent self-views, analytic versus holistic reasoning, and self-enhancing biases of Westerners. The non-WEIRD societies are much less analytic, exercise more holistic reasoning, do not see themselves as exceptional and emphasize choice to a lesser degree. Indeed, the authors point out that American are outliers when compared to other industrialized countries and American undergraduates are even outliers within their own group.

Will this data remain valid OR over time will smaller non-industrialized societies change to reflect  WEIRDo atitudes?