Americans are (statistically!) Weird

Have you ever wondered how social scientists conduct their psychological experiments? They mostly use volunteer American college undergraduates. This might seem obviously flawed; can a bunch of educated 20-year-olds possibly even represent the American spectrum, much less the world? The field hypothesized that the human brain structure is universal, and thus reasoning and decision-making as a consequence of that structure should be universal. The article “Why Americans are the Weirdest People in the World” explores the research of Joe Henrich. The article discusses how different cultures solve different problems, and how truly diverse thinking processes are across the globe. And wouldn’t you know it, Americans are crazy, crazy outliers in all of the problems.

Economics often uses behavioral experiments of game theory to understand choices that people make. In the famous “prisoner’s dilemma”, two “prisoners” may choose whether or not to rat out the other prisoner. Depending upon the choices of the two, there are four possible outcomes. If both betray, they are collectively worst off (say two years of prison each). If A betrays B and B does not betray A, A goes free while B gets 3 years of prison, and likewise for the reverse. If neither betray, they are collectively best off, and get a year each. The constructs of the game reward deceit.

Joe Henrich played such games with natives in Peru. The Ultimatum game is a version of the prisoner’s dilemma. Player 1 is given $100. He must make an offer to player 2. If player 2 feels the offer is too low, he may reject it, in which case both players keep nothing. Both players know the rules. Player 1 is compelled to offer enough so that player 2 does not feel cheated. In the US, the offer is typically close to $50, and lower offers are typically rejected. In Peru, the offer was much lower, and it was typically accepted. The people in Peru figured money was money, why reject it? Different cultures displayed different reactions to the Ultimatum game yet. The US is relatively typical of the west in this game. The researchers supposed that in a western society, people have grown to accept some inconvenience on their own behalf to punish dishonesty or greed, such as taking the time to write a complaint to the Better Business Bureau.

The article goes on to detail that Americans are outliers statistically. This has major implications for economics and sociology and psychology. It’s a great read, and for my part, I think a reason to take these kinds of sciences with a grain of salt. They are definitely fields worthy of study, but definitive conclusions are difficult. We know most that we know little about the human brain. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in the science, the article is a fascinating read just for the variety of human thinking.

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