Learning, Research

Does “American” = Human Nature?

PhrenologyOh the dirty secrets of academic research….

Remember those classic “human nature” thought experiments like the Prisoner’s Dilemma? It turns out that the “humans” they’re drawing these conclusions from are, overwhelmingly and unapologetically, humans-of-the-American-persuasion. But does American = human nature?

Take a classic ultimatum game: One player is gifted $100 with one condition: He or she has to offer some of it to an anonymous second player. Player 1 can choose any amount to give, but the second player knows there is $100 to split, and can either a) accept whatever split is offered, or b) refuse any “unfair” split, meaning they both walk away with nothing. These studies commonly find, when player 2s are offered less than a 50/50 split, that they are eager to “punish” this anonymous usurer, even if it means neither of them get anything.

See? 50/50 fairness and a drive to punish those who are unfair are universal characteristics hardwired into our human nature. 

But what if someone tried this in a different cultural context? Ethan Watters of Pacific Standard Magazine, outlined the work of psychologist Joe Henrich, who did just that: Heinrich conducted a similar ultimatum game
with the Machiguenga of Peru and observed vastly different results — almost no refusals occurred no matter what deal was offered:

Rich_Businessman_by_paulh18“It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money…. They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”

Watters used this example to highlight a common characteristic of social science research: assuming that the traits of one Continue reading “Does “American” = Human Nature?”