Westerners Really Are Different

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What if Westerners really are different--not necessarily superior, or more civilized, or any such imperialistic notion--just different. That's the subject addressed in a recent study.  "The Ultimatum Game," explains Adam McDowell of Canadian publication the National Post, "works like this: You are given $100 and asked to share it with someone else. You can offer that person any amount and if he accepts the offer, you each get to keep your share. If he rejects your offer, you both walk away empty-handed."

North Americans typically offer roughly half of the money, and will typically accept only about ten dollars less than half of the total. But that's not how "most of humanity" would do it. The Machiguenga of the Peruvian Amazon, it turns out, find "the idea of offering half your money downright weird--and rejecting an insultingly low offer even weirder."

The report McDowell is citing was conducted by University of British Columbia researchers Joseph Heinrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. They found that "Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic" societies--WEIRD societies--perform differently on "experiment after experiment involving measures of fairness, anti-social punishment and co-operation, as well as visual illusions and questions of individualism and conformity." Visual illusions that cause Westerners to see one line in a picture as longer than another don't have the same effect on "some hunter-gatherers," it turns out. McDowell summarizes the researchers' startling conclusion:
WEIRD people ... have unusual ideas of fairness, are more individualistic and less conformist than other people. In many of these respects, Americans are the most "extreme" Westerners, especially young ones. And educated Americans are even more extremely WEIRD than uneducated ones.

Cultural psychologist Will Benning, McDowell points out, is skeptical: there's "a human tendency ... to regard one's own group as unique. ... 'The point isn't that our group is not special, it's that each group is special in its own unique way.'"

That doesn't, though, negate the takeaway from the UBC team's work, which, as McDowell reports, is this: if you're going to do an experiment from which you draw broad conclusions about humanity, you might not want to test only Americans. Read the full, intriguing article here.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.