March 21, 2013

“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.”

Filed under: Americas, Economics, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:02

By way of Five Feet of Fury, an interesting story about challenging some very basic assumptions about psychology:

While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s 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 prisoner’s dilemma — to see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. 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.

[. . .]

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 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.”

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?

A notion that’s popped up several times in the last couple of months is that the easy access to willing test subjects (university students) introduces a strong bias to a lot of the tests, yet until recently the majority of studies disregarded the possibility that their test results were unrepresentative of the general population.

1 Comment

  1. I saw the same type of research at a prestigious American veterinary college. They did a survey of all dogs brought into their clinic suffering from cancer. They noted that all the dogs who had cancer had been neutered before six months of age. Therefore, their conclusion was that early neutering causes cancer. Except the only people likely to bring their dogs to a veterinary college for treatment would be the wealthy, socially conscious crowd who would get their dogs neutered early to avoid unwanted puppies and anti-social behaviour. If they had done their study at the local pound, they probably would have come up with different result.

    Comment by Wallhouse Wart — March 21, 2013 @ 17:48

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