the imaginative conservative logo

psychology head

No less than a counter-revolution has begun in social science, threatening to turn much of the Enlightenment topsy-turvy.

Not only is it fast gaining support within its own disciplines of anthropology, psychology and economics, but it has begun to influence other, “harder,” sciences too. The repercussions may be astounding, altering our view of how cultures think and act; changing our approaches from scholarship to trade to foreign policy, war and peace, development and politics; affecting how we view others and how we comprehend ourselves. Ultimately, it may equal what Newton did to the hard sciences, and Einstein did to Newton.

It appears to overturn our notions of human universality; ultimately challenging our views of even democracy and human rights, uprooting mighty ideologies many centuries old. It seems to amplify some observations of Edmund Burke on a culture’s unique patrimony, and the more thorough-going analysis of Russell Kirk, while armed with the weight and majesty of scientific fact. Still new, with its full implications far from clear, it is quite possible that this will be the default perspective when today’s toddler reaches university, and may dominate respectable thought and policy one or two generations thereafter.

Unfair to other involved scientists, and their forbearers, the tale still has to start somewhere. So it often begins in 1995 with a graduate student using economic game-theory in his anthropological research (a fine account and analysis, by reporter Ethan Watters, is here). Joe Henrich worked among Peru’s remote Machiguenga people, who are largely self-sufficient herdsmen and small-scale farmers and deal sparingly with the outside world. The Machiguenga play the part of Newton’s apple.

Henrich used a variant of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, with two anonymous players; one is given $100 to distribute as he chooses, while the other can only accept the offer or cancel the game and leave both players with nothing. Watters explains that the test would;

…see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. In doing so, Henrich expected to confirm one of the foundational assumptions underlying such experiments, and indeed underpinning the entire fields of economics and psychology: that humans all share the same cognitive machinery—the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring.

machiguenga girlHenrich expected the usual results: North American participants usually offer an even split, and punish unfairness although it also hurts themselves. But the Machiguenga settled for anything: after all, they reasoned, even a pittance is free money, and becoming the player who proposed the split was merely another’s good luck. Fair allocation, as we see it, wasn’t important; and no sensible Machiguenga was going to let such quibbling stop both players from getting something for nothing. Meanwhile we looked odd: Americans, with the world’s largest percentage of people in prison, might have seemed keen to punish others even in their games, even if it also punished themselves.

Later, in a global series of fourteen similar experiments, Henrich found recipients who rejected even 60% of the prize money. Those came from a culture sophisticated in giving and receiving gifts, in which such generosity was not uncommon, but where canny people often reject a big gift fearing the social debt or demanded reciprocity that might come later: after all, if the giver subsequently asked to buy your farmland or marry your daughter, a rejection could be socially worse than the initial economic loss of unexpected funds. One game has many interpretations.

After Henrich returned from Peru, his research met with hostility from University of British Columbia anthropologists. His unorthodox use of economic games in anthropology seemed “heavy-handed and invasive…and the word ‘unethical’ came up.” Allies found him a job between the Economics and Psychology Departments, where psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Steven Heine were sympathetic: “Heine focused on the different ways people in Western and Eastern cultures perceived the world, reasoned, and understood themselves in relationship to others. Norenzayan’s research focused on the ways religious belief influenced bonding and behavior. The three began to compile examples of cross-cultural research that, like Henrich’s work with the Machiguenga, challenged long-held assumptions of human psychological universality.”

Among their first discoveries was that most previous data was biased. In the top six psychology journals, “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.” Western respondents were readily available, but the sample was misleading and the presumed universality was false; moreover the Americans were, as the three scientists put it, “weird.”

Muller-Lyer Illusion

Muller-Lyer Illusion

Americans are indeed exceptional, they discovered, but not superior. Digging through 1960s research, Watters explains that they found “the Müller-Lyer illusion, (which) showed that where you grew up would determine to what degree you would fall prey to the illusion that these two lines are different in length.” Westerners, spending most of their lives in cubic rooms, are misled by perspective seen in corners, so to them the left line (with the splayed-out fletches at either end) looks longer. Africa’s nomadic Bushmen, who live outdoors and rarely see walls and corners, immediately and correctly see both lines as equal in length. Compared to children in the Yucatan, American kids are somewhat retarded, taking until age seven to stop anthropomorphizing animals, while the rural Mexican children understand the differences much earlier. There are many examples.

Going further back, the 1950s research of “pioneering social psychologist Solomon Asch…discovered that test subjects were often willing to make incorrect judgments on simple perception tests to conform with group pressure. When the test was performed across 17 societies, however, it turned out that group pressure had a range of influence. Americans were again at the far end of the scale, in this case showing the least tendency to conform to group belief.” Vast differences were discovered “in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas.”

The differences are not genetic, of course. Human brains, evolved before the Upper Paleolithic and hard-wired before birth, are consistent among Americans, Congolese pygmies, Swedish air-hostesses, and Japanese pearl-divers. What matters, Watters explains, is:

The growing body of cross-cultural research…suggested that the mind’s capacity to mold itself to cultural and environmental settings was far greater than had been assumed. The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do—the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like—but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception.

Superficially, anyone who has lived in foreign cultures notices different values, priorities of values, and much else, even if the reasons are unclear. Nor is it surprising to anyone who’s read Russell Kirk’s seminal Roots of American Order, which, although not a work of comparative anthropology, stresses the unique patrimony of American socio-political culture, implying that another, lacking antecedents in Kirk’s “Jerusalem, Athens, Rome and London,” will evolve differently. What can be shocking is how fundamental the perceptive differences can be: Colin Turnbull’s work with pygmies showed (see here at The Imaginative Conservative) how adults accustomed to dense rainforests had to learn distance vision on the unfamiliar savannahs. Our surroundings, and also our cultures, influence what our brains assimilate, but it goes far further.

The supreme importance here is, first, that yesteryear’s wise perceptions of vastly different cultures, their psychology and behavior are now becoming buttressed by science; by experimentation, by control groups, peer review, and all the other elements of proper Scientific Method. Put crudely, they produce reliable numbers–data that is quantifiable and qualifiable. In our modern age, such is prerequisite to serious consideration; “table stakes” in the endless poker game of ideas, with all of its educated guesses, wishful thinking, and outright bluffs. Without scientific proof, and the potential to replicate experiments, we can only rely upon those whom we think reason the best, or shout the loudest.

If the first prerequisite of any successful new idea is reliable data, the second is widespread acceptance. That comes much faster now, since the days of Copernicus. When data is inconclusive, honest scientists may choose any competing theory for almost any reason. But if history can be trusted, eventually enough scientific data is accumulated to form a fact-based consensus that works until a better theory emerges. Such accurate data is now being collected and analyzed, by scientists challenging concepts of globally uniform human psychology and behavior. Watters summarizes:

In the end they titled their paper “The Weirdest People in the World?” (pdf here) By “weird” they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. 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.

Moreover, Watters implies that any changing culture is a momentary snapshot rather than a multi-generational strip of cine-film; the cultural gulf between living Americans and their great-grandparents may be vast. This too challenges psychological universality, even within one outlier culture.

Recognizing the falsehood of psychological universality has begun to spread in three ways, initially wider within its discipline. A recent study shows that Bostonian self-worth is more reliant upon “community status and financial and educational achievement” than among people from San Francisco. Another shows that black Americans are less likely to save money than whites of equal education, income and social standing (perhaps reflecting a need for blacks to “demonstrate” wealth in order to acquire respect in their own communities). Dr. Norenzayan says: “A cultural difference does not have to be big to be important. We’re not just talking about comparing New York yuppies to the Dani tribesmen of Papua New Guinea.” So, regarding social change or even fairness, a “one-sized policy” no longer fits all, universality has to go–and it’s no longer mere opinion.

Secondly, the distinction spreads into other academic disciplines, even physiology. Studies on the “honor-centered” society of the American South show that insults raise testosterone levels faster than elsewhere. This implies, remarkably, that culture influences our reactions at physical levels deeper than our thoughts. More dramatically, studies a decade ago (described here at The Imaginative Conservative) showed measurable physical changes in the brain, driven by how the brain is used. London taxi drivers have stronger logistical powers than the rest of us, and the parts of the brain directed at getting from one place to another efficiently are commensurately larger and faster. Shown photographs of human burn-victims that make ordinary viewers recoil in horror and disgust, the brains of Tibetan monks responded instantly with signals of empathy, trained by years of meditation. As if the brain were a muscle, we can develop it as we choose, or as our cultures choose for us. This suggests that we are not only attitudinally different than, say, an Asian whose culture stresses harmony over individual satisfaction, but that after birth our divergent cultures make even our physical brains become different physiologically and functionally.

The upshot is that different cultures perceive and interpret the world differently, that affects one’s psychology, and over time even changes the physiology of one’s brain. In practice, what constitutes, say, fairness differs widely, as does the importance of fairness itself. Notions that we “are basically all the same” is now demonstrable nonsense.

Thirdly and needless to say, this makes a mockery of modern Western imperialism; starting with our underlying assumptions of the universality of Man, eventually leading tomorrow’s thinkers on a Long March through vast institutions and powerful vested interests trying to turn the world’s cultures into mirror-images of ours. It exposes us as Procrustes, mutilating every guest who did not fit his iron bed.

Take an example from TIC, where George W. Carey cites 19th Century American statesman John C. Calhoun, saying that “the mere existence of government will divide society into two parts, a majority and minority.” In Western democracy, you acquire 51% of the votes and Heaven help the out-maneuvered 49%; it almost guarantees a substantial team of resentful, scheming losers. Some older cultures take another view and, sacrificing speed and efficiency, talk everything through ad nauseam until virtually everyone agrees. This often avoids the need to vote at all.

Avoiding such Western democratic loggerheads is common among most tribal societies and displays the noteworthy Asian and Scandinavian importance placed on consensus; their cultures are old, populations homogenous and they’d rather not descend into lasting factionalism. Instead, they talk so long that a few minority demands can always be met, recalcitrance is ground down and most everyone joins the consensus without losing face. Rarely even ten-percent leave the meeting utterly dissatisfied, partly because widespread agreement matters much to them; while what matter most to us are winning, rapid change, and gloating. Like Carey and Calhoun, we assume that the Western Way is the only way, but other cultural priorities and stratagems have worked for thousands of years longer than our intrinsically combative culture existed.

If humans are all perceptively, cognitively, and psychologically the same, there may be one rational system worth installing worldwide; if we are physically, psychologically, and culturally different, can we justify forcing a system that strengthens, say, speedy material progress over another that prefers to sustain cohesion, even at the cost of time, prosperity, and individual rights? Thus diverse cultures and traditions challenge human universality, which is the very marrow of The Enlightenment, from Locke to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, to the ideological portions of America’s founding documents, to modern economics and psychology, and the West’s smug self-certainty. It disputes the supposed universal desirability of every social system and issue that we thrust upon the world. Metaphorically, we force (and/or bribe) Jews and Muslims to eat pork, and slap the wheelchair-user who won’t run the marathon. E Pluribus Unum but at gunpoint, it’s “my way or the highway.”

Parts of the Western Renaissance, framing Scientific Method, remain admirably unaltered; but the triumphalism and fiat-universality of the ideological Enlightenment are being stuffed into the shredder–by Scientific Method. The process is ironic and piquant; irking Western Progressives who view Science as a trustworthy handmaiden of Universalist Reform, as well as under-educated Conservatives who mistrust Science as a gauleiter of Universal Progressivism. Can we cook enough crow to feed them all?

Still, overall, this puts ordinary modern Westerners in an interesting pickle. On one hand, we’re usually full of (now secularized) missionary zeal to make the world’s “benighted little brown people” just like us. On the other we increasingly want to respect cultural diversity, formerly observed and now being measured. The hypocritical fulcrum has been our assumed universality of human psychology; since we think that our “one system fits all,” we can justify forcing our perceptions and our solutions on others, “for their own good.” They’re allowed to keep their funky costumes, exotic food and quaint folk-dances, so long as they become “just like us” in party-political democracy, individual rights, birth-control/abortion, gender/transgender issues, panoplies of government services, capitalism, consumerism, etc.

But if foreigners are different than we are–in their perceptions, psychological reactions, and even the physiology of their brains–then our meddling becomes less defensible. If cultures even see reality differently, and their views matter, then we must treat everyone differently, and not just separate out the “cute” primitive tribes whom we protect as zoo-animals while we manhandle everyone else. Ultimately and most confoundingly, if we cannot escape our own cultural, perceptive, and psychological biases, we cannot even fully understand how other cultures think, apart from in vague generalities. In a way, this new research opens a Pandora’s Box of endlessly subdividable cultures and subcultures, whose different perceptions demonstrate how little we know of ourselves and others.

Soon, as research unfolds, we must choose between declaring total war to change the systems, values, and cognition of every culture on earth, or adopt a more practical and ethical meld of (a) respecting and accommodating ancient cultural differences as we discover them, perhaps under (b) a Judeo-Christian model wherein there is no earthly universality apart from Man made in God’s image, replicating His equal love for every human soul. While some may still evangelize to their secular hearts’ content, we will now know the unlikelihood of success, and the brutal millennia needed to change ancient cultures.

Adapting to so many newfound realities won’t be easy, for as prisoners of our own unique psychology we can hardly even imagine, say, how to validate change apart from democratic elections. Our Western systems are part of our cultural DNA, and few can think outside of our own cultural values. Beyond the ballot-box, what other systems are “legitimate” means of making policy decisions–and legitimate to whom?

Another ironic effect may be that scientifically-proven diversity strangles the politicized cod-diversity of trendy Western elites. If real diversity entails different physiology and different perceptions of reality, then Progressive definitions resemble suburban children playing cowboys-and-Indians without resembling 19th Century cattlemen or Sioux or Comanche. How much we can realistically adopt from a different culture, beyond some understanding and tolerance, may be only play-acting, window-dressing, ethnic beadwork and funny food.

As scientific complexity marches on, the policy solution may be Candide’s; staying home to “cultivate our own garden,” to strengthen our own culture, to trade and to serve as an example to foreigners who seek one: George Washington’s recommendation in his Farewell Address.

So far, Watters reports, most scientists have sided with Science; without weighing Western cultural values that prize so-called human universalities versus conflicting proof of vast diversity. There has been no significant clash of conscience among them. Yet it may result in a battle-royal, with triumphalist Neo-Cons, incorrigible Progressives, and multinational corporations demanding a 1,000-Year War like a 1,000-Year Reich, promising a Western ideological Procrustes for every bed on earth, until we all become homogenized and obedient. I say fat chance. With this new research, it becomes clear why Western systems are so often copied so imperfectly by foreign cultures, whose underlying priorities, perceptions and traditions so differ from ours. If we’re unaware of how we think, plus how they perceive, bullying intrusion is guaranteed to fail.

My bet is that Science wins quietly, with the ramifications of its discoveries creeping softly into every Western mind, as happened since the Ancient Greeks. Gradually, we and our Western-driven so-called international institutions will accommodate reality, until one day we’ll look back and wonder how we got it so wrong for so long. This process will be hastened by other cultures, chiefly Asian, as they grow in power and we learn to accommodate one another. At home and abroad, learning of our many vast differences may nullify any realistic attempts to micro-manage Mankind. At home, this new approach will prove what makes us different too, so that we can better reinforce the most needed parts of the West’s recklessly self-embattled culture and just maybe help, on the fringes, to modify others.

What have been the unquantified judgments of the wise now enter, signally, the realm of scientific fact. That’s a game-changer, and you were present at the birth. Scribble it into your diaries for posterity. Your great-grandchildren will find it as fascinating as if your ancestor helped Semmelweis wash his lab-coat, watched Leeuwenhoek at his microscope, or encouraged Gutenberg to invest in moveable type.

Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
12 replies to this post
  1. This is by far the strongest and most eloquent defense of diversity, individuality, and cultural complexity that I have ever read from a conservative point of view! You make the argument for multiculturalism without dismissing the unquestionably exceptional characteristics of our American heritage, and yet still advocate for variety in the cultural domain. Essentially, I understand you to mean that we as Americans are indeed exceptional, but that it would be both immoral and imprudent to thrust our cognitive process onto the rest of the world by force. Thank you for the research that backs up this claim. May we all use it as the key to unlocking the tyrannical shackles of “enlightened” uniformity.

  2. People ARE the same universally. They all lie, cheat, steal, kill, covet and love, sacrifice, give, and share. The specifics may be different among cultures, but that is all. Of course we shouldn’t force ourselves on the world, but neither should we cower and feel bad about ourselves. The West is the most successful system our world has ever seen. Unfortunately, we have traitors in our midst.

    • Sir, you display your biases, unwittingly no doubt. The world’s most successful according to whom!? America’s strongest growth industry may be producing porn; family or geographic stability may matter to others. Love your technology and toys and material riches, but other cultures may not.

  3. Aye, I like the cut of your jib. Americans are different, and why not? After all, they have been subjected to more changes and ways of doing than any other culture in history. It took me the better part of 70+ years to realize that I grew up in an area people who were pioneers. My grandmother whose funeral I would preach came with her family in a covered wagon to an area of great swamps opened to settlement by low land prices (like $2/an acre, when land around those swamps were $4-6/an acre). Imagine the indoctrination I received “making do” and “you do what you have to do” and “think, use your head for something other than to hang a hat on”. Pshaw! Though I did not know it then, my great grandfather who had gone up and down the Chisholm Trail some 5-6 times died in bed at the age of 89. From the cotton fields of a sharecropper in Arkansas, I went on to attend some 10 colleges. universities and other institutions, earn five degrees in three fields plus18 hrs. toward a Ph.D., and 12 of that at an Ivy League school. For what its worth: our business is to model internalizing change and the ability to accept it, assimilate it, and triumph through it for the rest of the world. As to the evangelism issue: every believer in biblical Christianity is an advertisement, subliminally seductive advertisement, by reason of maturity, that is, of being balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic, which the biblical truths are designed to produce in the believer by way of tensions sparked in the human mind by precepts of two poles that cannot be reconciled and are not meant to be reconciled, but to be reveled in as a desirable tension that enables and empowers one to be balanced, flexible, etc. All of which is to prepares us to win the whole earth to Christ in one generation and continue to do so for a 1000 generations, anywhere from 20,000 to 900,000 years, and a million billion planets, all so God’s little joke to cheer His despair followers in Rev.7:9 (a number no one can number) can be taken as really true). And we do this not by coercion (God forbid!), but by winsomeness. As one lady said, “O, it was so wonderful that I could not resist it.”

  4. “The differences are not genetic, of course. Human brains, evolved before the Upper Paleolithic and hard-wired before birth, are consistent among Americans, Congolese pygmies, Swedish air-hostesses, and Japanese pearl-divers.”

    Except the differences ARE genetic. Human evolution did not stop after the Paleolithic, or at the very least evolution did not merely continue from the neck-down. The brain evolves like everything else.

  5. Thank you, Mr Groves. Not just “immoral and imprudent,” but if the science is correct, virtually impossible.

    Western Conservatives are a people often confused, between a real and desperate need to fortify their own declining national cultures versus the doomed impulse to promulgate by imperialism abroad. Such people, unable to discipline their own three teenaged children, expect their government to successfully reform three billion Asian adults. This process cloaks domestic failure under impossible dream, just as their nations deteriorate physically while the delusional call for ever larger war-chests and more military excursions abroad, ostensibly copying what hasn’t worked at home. Kirkians see through that, of course.

  6. Mr Harris, to me you just grabbed the brass ring! The biggest unstated issue in my piece (due to space, alas) is the countervailing homogenizing effect of trade. However, as someone trying to start a business in Nepal the change comes slowly, and even people who dress and talk as we do are very very different inside their own heads. I’d guess the jury is still out on this.

  7. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. A little history of ideas unfolding before our very eyes!

    It is fascinating to see that what seems self-evident to me is revolutionary to scholars in a different discipline. I am not used to relying on statistical research to shape my fundamental assumptions about how people think or behave, so l had to work hard to figure out why Henrich’s work is so significant. I was totally unaware that so many social scientists had duped themselves with such poor statistical sampling.

    Perhaps a second reason I was a bit unmoved by Henrich’s essay is that the operative definition of “human nature” lacks what I find to be a more substantial and interesting view, one I think is shared by many readers of TIC.

    Namely, as humans our nature is not the aggregate of how we think, the values we adopt, or the ways we define ourselves in relation to nature/society. Those things, rather, are expressions of our human nature, and its transformation, or lack thereof, by participation in realities that transcend ourselves and our cultures.

  8. It also helps to know that science is undergoing changes, too. One of the problems of the scientific method is that it is too analytical, and problems develop, for example, when it faces situations where the original hypothesis and the null hypothesis as well are both truth. In other words, there is a need for what I call a synthetical scientific method. Analysis lying at the heart of the present approach almost demands that we think of synthesis as another way. The shifts in scientific paradigms certainly do.

Leave a Reply