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."
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:
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.
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
Want to add to this story? Let us know in comments
or send an email to the author at
hhorn at theatlantic dot com.
You can share ideas for stories on the Open Wire.