Penn State University Being Weird How Culture Shapes the Mind Analysis Paper Readings: Ethan Watters, Being WEIRD: How Culture Shapes the Mind (422)
Wesley Yang, Paper Tigers (435)
Does the culture were born into define who we are going to be? Using the articles by Watters and Yang, write an essay in which you synthesize the work of both authors to consider the ways cultures shape who we are and predict who will become. Give specific examples to support your writing.
Things to get you thinking:
Watters talks about the possibility that there is no one universal human culture. Do you agree? Are you shaped by the place you are born?
Both essays spend time comparing and contrasting American and Chinese cultures. Why are these seen as the two extremes? Make a list of reasons. Look at the essays for evidence to back up your list.
Yang talks about pushing back against his Chinese heritage and the stereotype of the typical Chinese-American. What effects do these stereotypes have on Chinese-American self-esteem and success?
Final Draft: four full pages
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*must have title/heading/page number *double spaced *1-inch margins *12-point font *MLA format ETHAN WATTERS
Journalist Ethan Watters is the author of Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship,
Family, and Commitment (2003); Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche
(2010); and, with Richard Ofshe, Therapys Delusions: The Myth of the Unconscious and the
Exploitation of Todays Walking Worried (1999). His writing has appeared in such varied
magazines as the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Details, Spin, and Pacific Standard.
Pacific Standard magazine was first published in 2008 under the name Miller-McCune for its
publisher, the nonprofit Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. In
keeping with its new name, the magazine seeks to cover stories from a West Coast perspective.
Subtitled The Science of Society, the magazine covers topics as diverse as politics, health,
nature, technology, and culture. On February 25, 2013, the online edition of the magazine
published Being WEIRD: How Culture Shapes the Mind, a featured culture article.
In Being WEIRD: How Culture Shapes the Mind, Watters looks at the work of anthropologist
Joe Henrich, whose work with the ultimatum game experiment in isolated small-scale
communities around the world revealed that much of what social scientists, economists, and
psychologists assumed to be universal human behavior was in fact a reflection of a distinctly
Western psyche. Henrich and his colleagues use this work and other research to argue that
Westerners are WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Far from
serving as examples of the universal, Americans (who form the subjects of many experiments
in fields such as psychology) are the weirdest of all, with responses indicating that they are
the outliers among the outliers. Watters examines the implications of these claims, which
threaten the foundation of many disciplines.
Are there universal traits to the human mind? How can we discover them?
TAGS: community, culture, economics, education, globalism, psychology
CONNECTIONS: Appiah, Das, Epstein, Fukuyama, Gilbert, Holmes, Konnikova, Lukianoff and
Haidt, Ma, Serano, Southan, Turkle, von Busch, Wallace
Being WEIRD: How Culture Shapes
the Mind In the summer of 1995, a young graduate student in anthropology at
UCLA named Joe Henrich traveled to Peru to carry out some fieldwork among the
Machiguenga, an indigenous people who live north of Machu Picchu in the Amazon basin.
The Machiguenga had traditionally been horticulturalists who lived in single-family, thatchroofed houses in small hamlets composed of clusters of extended families. For sustenance,
they relied on local game and produce from small-scale farming. They shared with their kin
but rarely traded with outside groups. While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist,
Henrichs research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run
a behavioral experiment that had been developed by economists. Henrich used a game
along the lines of the famous prisoners dilemma to see whether isolated cultures shared
with the West the same basic instinct for fairness.1 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. The test that Henrich
introduced to the Machiguenga was called the ultimatum game. The rules are simple: In each
game there are two players who remain anonymous to each other. The first player is given
an amount of money, say $100, and told that he has to offer some of the cash, in an amount
of his choosing, to the other subject. The second player can accept or refuse the split. But
theres a hitch: Players know that if the recipient refuses the offer, both leave empty-handed.
North Americans, who are the most common subjects for such experiments, usually offer a
50-50 split when on the giving end. When on the receiving end, they show an eagerness to
punish the other player for uneven splits at their own expense. In short, Americans show the
tendency to be equitable with strangers and to punish those who are not. Among the
Machiguenga, word quickly spread of the young, square-jawed visitor from America giving
away money. The stakes Henrich used in the game with the Machiguenga were not
insubstantial roughly equivalent to the few days wages they sometimes earned from
episodic work with logging or oil companies. So Henrich had no problem finding volunteers.
What he had great difficulty with, however, was explaining the rules, as the game struck the
Machiguenga as deeply odd. When he began to run the game it became immediately clear
that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North
American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when
on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible
amount. It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free
money, says Henrich. They just didnt understand why anyone would sacrifice money to
punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game
. The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He
knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences particularly in
economics and psychology relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments. At the
heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved
psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly
always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood
up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of
universality would have to be challenged. Henrich had thought he would be adding a small
branch to an established tree of knowledge. It turned out he was sawing at the very trunk. He
began to wonder: What other certainties about human nature in social science research
would need to be reconsidered when tested across diverse populations? Henrich soon landed
a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to take his fairness games on the road. With the help
of a dozen other colleagues he led a study of fourteen other small-scale societies, in locales
from Tanzania to Indonesia. Differences abounded in the behavior of both players in the
ultimatum game. In no society did he find people who were purely selfish (that is, who always
offered the lowest amount, and never refused a split), but average offers from place to place
varied widely and, in some societies ones where gift-giving is heavily used to curry favor
or gain allegiance the first player would often make overly generous offers in excess of 60
percent, and the second player would often reject them, behaviors almost never observed
among Americans. The research established Henrich as an up-and-coming scholar. In 2004,
he was given the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for young scientists at the White House.
But his work also made him a controversial figure. When he presented his research to the
anthropology department at the University of British Columbia during a job interview a year
later, he recalls a hostile reception. Anthropology is the social science most interested in
cultural differences, but the young scholars methods of using games and statistics to test and
compare cultures with the West seemed heavy-handed and invasive to some. Professors
from the anthropology department suggested it was a bad thing that I was doing, Henrich
remembers. The word unethical came up. So instead of toeing the line, he switched teams.
A few well-placed people at the University of British Columbia saw great promise in Henrichs
work and created a position for him, split between the economics department and the
psychology department. It was in the psychology department that he found two kindred
spirits in Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan. Together the three set about writing a paper that
they hoped would fundamentally challenge the way social scientists thought about human
behavior, cognition, and culture. A modern liberal arts education gives lots of lip service to
the idea of cultural diversity. Its generally agreed that all of us see the world in ways that are
sometimes socially and culturally constructed, that pluralism is good, and that ethnocentrism
is bad. But beyond that the ideas get muddy. That we should welcome and celebrate people
of all backgrounds seems obvious, but the implied corollary that people from different
ethno-cultural origins have particular attributes that add spice to the body politic becomes
more problematic. To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those
culturally derived qualities might be. Challenge liberal arts graduates on their appreciation of
cultural diversity and youll often find them retreating to the anodyne notion that under the
skin everyone is really alike. If you take a broad look at the social science curriculum of the
last few decades, it becomes a little more clear why modern graduates are so unmoored. The
last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social
scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors, albeit
in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore
off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural
imperialism. Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue
with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of
culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so
human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal.
No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test
subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common
that assumption was: 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 worlds population. Henrichs work with the ultimatum game
was an example of a small but growing countertrend in the social sciences, one in which
researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition. His
new colleagues in the psychology department, Heine and Norenzayan, were also part of this
trend. Heine focused on the different ways people in Western and Eastern cultures perceived
the world, reasoned, and understood themselves in relationship to others. Norenzayans
research focused on the ways religious belief influenced bonding and behavior. The three
began to compile examples of cross-cultural research that, like Henrichs work with the
Machiguenga, challenged long-held assumptions of human psychological universality. Some
of that research went back a generation. It was in the 1960s, for instance, that researchers
discovered that aspects of visual perception were different from place to place. One of the
classics of the literature, the Müller-Lyer illusion, showed that where you grew up would
determine to what degree you would fall prey to the illusion that [the] two lines [in the figure
on p. 426] are different in length.2 Researchers found that Americans perceive the line with
the ends feathered outward (B) as being longer than the line with the arrow tips (A). San
foragers of the Kalahari, on the other hand, were more likely to see the lines as they are: equal
in length. Subjects from more than a dozen cultures were tested, and Americans were at the
far end of the distribution seeing the illusion more dramatically than all others.
More recently psychologists had challenged the universality of research done in the 1950s by
pioneering social psychologist Solomon Asch. Asch had 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 seventeen 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. As Heine,
Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide
cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the
motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and
others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways
Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasnt because they
had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting
a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries that had been
refined and handed down through thousands of generations in ever more complex market
economies. When people are constantly doing business with strangers, it helps when they
have the desire to go out of their way (with a lawsuit, a call to the Better Business Bureau, or
a bad Yelp review) when they feel cheated. Because Machiguengan culture had a different
history, their gut feeling about what was fair was distinctly their own. In the small-scale
societies with a strong culture of gift-giving, yet another conception of fairness prevailed.
There, generous financial offers were turned down because peoples minds had been shaped
by a cultural norm that taught them that the acceptance of generous gifts brought
burdensome obligations. Our economies hadnt been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was
the other way around. The growing body of cross-cultural research that the three researchers
were compiling suggested that the minds 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. For instance, the different ways people perceive
the Müller-Lyer illusion likely reflects lifetimes spent in different physical environments.
American children, for the most part, grow up in box-shaped rooms of varying dimensions.
Surrounded by carpentered corners, visual perception adapts to this strange new
environment (strange and new in terms of human history, that is) by learning to perceive
converging lines in three dimensions.
When unconsciously translated in three dimensions, the line with the outward-feathered ends
(C) appears farther away and the brain therefore judges it to be longer. The more time one
spends in natural environments, where there are no carpentered corners, the less one sees
the illusion. As the three continued their work, they noticed something else that was
remarkable: Again and again one group of people appeared to be particularly unusual when
compared to other populations with perceptions, behaviors, and motivations that were
almost always sliding down one end of the human bell curve. In the end they titled their paper
The Weirdest People in the World?3 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. Not long ago I met Henrich,
Heine, and Norenzayan for dinner at a small French restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia,
to hear about the reception of their weird paper, which was published in the prestigious
journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2010. The trio of researchers are young as
professors go good-humored family men. They recalled that they were nervous as the
publication time approached. The paper basically suggested that much of what social
scientists thought they knew about fundamental aspects of human cognition was likely only
true of one small slice of humanity. They were making such a broadside challenge to whole
libraries of research that they steeled themselves to the possibility of becoming outcasts in
their own fields. We were scared, admitted Henrich. We were warned that a lot of people
were going to be upset. We were told we were going to get spit on, interjected Norenzayan.
Yes, Henrich said. That wed go to conferences and no one was going to sit next to us at
lunchtime. Interestingly, they seemed much less concerned that they had used the pejorative
acronym WEIRD to describe a significant slice of humanity, although they did admit that they
could only have done so to describe their own group. Really, said Henrich, the only people
we could have called weird are represented right here at this table. Still, I had to wonder
whether describing the Western mind, and the American mind in particular, as weird
suggested that our cognition is not just different but somehow malformed or twisted. In their
paper the trio pointed out cross-cultural studies that suggest that the weird Western mind
is the most self-aggrandizing and egotistical on the planet: We are more likely to promote
ourselves as individuals versus advancing as a group. WEIRD minds are also more analytic,
possessing the tendency to telescope in on an object of interest rather than understanding
that object in the context of what is around it. The WEIRD mind also appears to be unique in
terms of how it comes to understand and interact with the natural world. Studies show that
Western urban children grow up so closed off in man-made environments that their brains
never form a deep or complex connection to the natural world. 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 seven
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. Given that people living in
WEIRD societies dont routinely encounter or interact with animals other than humans or pets,
its not surprising that they end up with a rather cartoonish understanding of the natural world.
Indeed, the report concluded, studying the cognitive developmen…
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