28 February, 2013

The importance of culture

In my days of writing academic journal articles (1970-1990), one of my most frequent themes was criticism of the way my fellow psychologists used students as their subjects of study. They seemed to assume that what was true of American college students was true of human beings everywhere. And those psychologists who didn't use their students as subjects of study used white rats!

So I was something of a lone voice in expressing dissatisfaction with the reigning research traditions. I was virtually the only voice in psychology saying that what is true of American college students might not be representative of other populations and sub-populations.

But as I have often found, my way of thinking does gain ground eventually and that has now happened again after the relatively recent work of a small group of researchers led by an anthropologist (Henrich). You can read a lengthy summary of their work here. They did a lot of cross cultural research among non-Western cultures which showed that in most of the world's cultures people think radically differently from the way "Westerners" generally and Americans in particular think. And their evidence was sufficiently extensive and cogent to gain widespread acceptance, though I doubt that research traditions will change much. More caution about generalizations can however hopefully be expected.

The new evidence was in fact stark in the way that Americans were shown to be at the far extremes of how the rest of the world thinks. Americans are consistently outliers on most things. There are great variations in the world's cultures but no culture is as "weird" as American culture.

The only surprise is that that was a surprise. "American exceptionalism" anyone? Modern Western civilization is an outlier to all of history. It is different precisely because it represents a new and better way of dealing with the world. It dominates the world because it is different -- but different in an adaptive way. It is a freak of cultural evolution that has transformed the world in a matter of only 200 years or so. It is clearly a pity that the Left are now beavering away to destroy that culture.

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