This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah
Until recently, when psychologists conducted lab tests (most often on undergrad students acting as guinea pigs in return of some stipend), they (the psychologists) assumed that their test results were universally valid, especially when it came to such “general” issues as self-image, fairness, visual perception, temperament, anger, etc… But the suspicion that our universalist preconceptions may only betray certain cultural biases remained there, but untested – until now.
Recently, a group of psychologists in the US decided to test precisely that principle of universality of human traits: what aspects of our humanness are (or are not) independent of our specific cultures? Are the typical human subjects of psychological studies in the west (two thirds of the time undergraduate students) representative of the human species in general or not?
In a paper published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a team from the University of British Columbia found that their student guinea pigs gave responses that are typical only of WEIRD subjects (WEIRD standing for ‘Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic’ – a nice acronym!). Behavioral scientists now emphasize the differences between WEIRD subjects and East-Asian ones, the latter – we are reminded – think “more holistically” and “see context and surroundings more than discrete objects” (see Sharon Begley’s report in Newsweek).
What was really interesting in these studies is that several cases where one would not suspect any cultural influence turned out to produce clear differences between western (WEIRD) and eastern subjects. For example, the famous arrow test (see diagram) where the subject is asked which arrow is longer (the two are of equal length): in the West, more people (by about 20 percent) will have the impression that the lower one is longer. But for people from the San tribe of the Kalahari desert, no such wrong impression is found. The difference is interpreted as being the result of growing in “an environment filled with right angles” (don’t ask me how the two issues are connected!).
A more interesting case was the testing of “the sense of fairness”. How does one test that? The game is the following: A is given $10 and told to give some of it to B; if B accepts the amount, then each keeps his/her amount, and all is fine, but if B rejects it, the two end up with nothing; so B has to decide whether s/he is better off with a small (but unjust) amount or with nothing (but punishing A). American undergrads, we are told, typically give $4 or $5 as A, and B’s reject anything below $3. But subjects from non-industrial communities (in this case in Tanzania) usually offer some $2.50 to the other subjects, and the latter do accept that.
Finally, it is reported that facial expressions related to emotions as well as the fondness for sugar are indeed human “universals”; some of these “universals” are probably due to human evolution. (I’m glad that my fondness for sweets is a typical, universal trait…)