Monday, October 04, 2010

Are there “universally human” traits?

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…)


Ali said...

"I’m glad that my fondness for sweets is a typical, universal trait…"

And I'm wondering whether I am superhuman!!!! :)
(I am not fond of sweets.)

Interesting post Nidhal.
Isn't psychology the most open subject? I think anything cann fit in there. I think what they say is human psychology depends on who is making the theory.

I think it can also be said that people from an "environment filled with right angles" are better than those from WEIRD environments. Do we need a psychologist to tell us that? :)

The right andgled environment makes me wonder whther Pythagoras was educated there.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Hi Ali,
Thanks for your comments. I need to bring some clarifications and add my views on your remarks regarding psychology.
First, the WEIRD subjects DO live in the "right-angled (western) environments", and it's not clear to anyone whether such environments are "better" (for what purposes?). And whether Pythagoras's world was "right-angled" or more "round-shaped" is a good question for historians.
Now, is psychology a "real" science, and does it tell us things that we do not know? You may recall that I reviewed Massimo Pigliucci's recent book in the summer, where he tries to determine the "demarcation line" between real science and non-science. He concludes that there are gray areas in between, fields he calls "almost science" and "pseudo-science". Furthermore, he stressed that what all scientific investigations have in common is three elements: naturalism, theory, and empiricism. By this criterion, psychology cannot be said to be a "real science", at least not yet, but perhaps it can be classified as an "almost science". Clearly we can see that it makes progress on the objectivity scale, but it also finds that many of the conclusions reached in the field are constantly in need of revision, first and foremost because it seems to be weak on the "universal" scale. When its experiments ("empiricism") become more solidly universal and objective (not depending on the subjects), and when it becomes able to provide explanations for its findings ("theory"), then it will become a real science.
Hope this makes sense.

Ali said...

Hi Nidhal,

"First, the WEIRD subjects DO live in the "right-angled (western) environments", and it's not clear to anyone whether such environments are "better" (for what purposes?)."
Ok. I actually thought otherwise. But, never mind.
In my comment above, the word 'weird' is to be read as 'weird' not as the acronym. I shouldn't have used capital letters.

Science has been defined a number of ways, i heard. But more importantly, some psychological findings make me wonder whether we are anything close to what reality is. People seem to make theories and do all sorts of experiments, surveys and research to find out various psychological findings. Or so they say. To me, sometimes they looked more like something cooked up. So the minute someone says psychological research findings, I normally run for miles.

About Piglliuchi's views ....
If science is naturalism, theory and empiricism, SETI is not science proper. It is more like pseudo-science. (oops, that makes it worse than 'almost science').

How can SETI be science when it has no naturalism, no theory and no empiricism?
I think at best ESTI is based on a speculation. Which means it is not even a theory. Now, you can add Drake eqation to argue otherwise. But thats hardly adding any theory, I think. :)

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Hi Ali,
Regarding SETI, Pigliucci discusses it at some length, in connection to Popper's falsifiability criterion: since we cannot set up an experiment that will give a negative answer ("falsify" the claim of the existence of aliens), then SETI is not a real science, at least according to Popper. On the other hand, SETI uses bona fide scientific methodology, is naturalistic, objective, universal in its work, etc. Still, one has to be careful with allowing into Science areas where claims can never be proven wrong (like all kinds of new-age fields and effects...).

Ali said...

I haven't read Pigliucci's book.

There obviously is a danger in limiting the definition of science -- it excludes some of the important and at least one of the most expensive forms of science we are doing.

Of course, SETI is science. To say otherwise cannot be justified.
But if SETI is science, everything else that fits into the same criteria is also science.

"Still, one has to be careful with allowing into Science areas where claims can never be proven wrong (like all kinds of new-age fields and effects...)."
This is where I disagree.
You cannot use the same yardstick and not measure two things in the same way.

We need to attempt to prove "claims that can never be proven wrong." That they can never be proven wrong is an assumption we are making. Some people made the assumption and proved that we have an eternal universe. They also thought that they cannot be proven wrong. But we all know what happened. :)

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Good points, Ali.
I'm sure we'll get more chances to explore these issues in the future.
Best wishes.

Ali said...

Thanks and best wishes to you too, Nidhal

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