Monday, March 24, 2014

The Effects of Culture on Behavior

Someone posted a link to We Aren't the World recently on Facebook. Being about culture, I was intrigued even though it took me probably a week to getting around to reading it. It was so fascinating, it deserved a blog post rather than merely a Pin! I was actually going to make this short, but after trying to write it, I've just had to copy out a bunch of quotes from the article then interject just a few of my own thoughts.

It's been a few days now since I read it, but it started out in 1995, when an anthropologist went to study some indigenous people to "prove" that fairness is an inherent trait. What he found was the opposite! He found that culture shaped people's view of fairness rather than it being universal!

[Now I'm just going to quote a lot.  Please pardon my massive lack of summarizing.]

[He wondered] What other certainties about “human nature” in social science research would need to be reconsidered when tested across diverse populations?

[He also found that in regards to economy, it] hadn’t been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was the other way around.

Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. . . .96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.

Henrich’s work with the ultimatum game was an example of a small but growing countertrend in the social sciences, one in which researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition.

It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors.

Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations.

Studies show that Western urban children grow up so closed off in man-made environments that their brains never form a deep or complex connection to the natural world. While studying children from the U.S., researchers have suggested a developmental timeline for what is called “folkbiological reasoning.” These studies posit that it is not until children are around 7 years old that they stop projecting human qualities onto animals and begin to understand that humans are one animal among many. Compared to Yucatec Maya communities in Mexico, however, Western urban children appear to be developmentally delayed in this regard. Children who grow up constantly interacting with the natural world are much less likely to anthropomorphize other living things into late childhood.

Recent research has shown that people in “tight” cultures, those with strong norms and low tolerance for deviant behavior (think India, Malaysia, and Pakistan), develop higher impulse control and more self-monitoring abilities than those from other places. Men raised in the honor culture of the American South have been shown to experience much larger surges of testosterone after insults than do Northerners. Research published late last year suggested psychological differences at the city level too. Compared to San Franciscans, Bostonians’ internal sense of self-worth is more dependent on community status and financial and educational achievement.

...if human cognition is shaped by cultural ideas and behavior, it can’t be studied without taking into account what those ideas and behaviors are and how they are different from place to place.

This new approach suggests the possibility of reverse-engineering psychological research: look at cultural content first; cognition and behavior second.

When Norenzayan became a student of psychology in 1994, four years after his family had moved from Lebanon to America, he was excited to study the effect of religion on human psychology. “I remember opening textbook after textbook and turning to the index and looking for the word ‘religion,’ ” he told me, “Again and again the very word wouldn’t be listed. This was shocking. How could psychology be the science of human behavior and have nothing to say about religion? Where I grew up you’d have to be in a coma not to notice the importance of religion on how people perceive themselves and the world around them.”

If religion was necessary in the development of large-scale societies, can large-scale societies survive without religion? Norenzayan points to parts of Scandinavia with atheist majorities that seem to be doing just fine. They may have climbed the ladder of religion and effectively kicked it away. Or perhaps, after a thousand years of religious belief, the idea of an unseen entity always watching your behavior remains in our culturally shaped thinking even after the belief in God dissipates or disappears.

90 percent of neuroimaging studies were performed in Western countries. Researchers in motor development similarly suggestedthat their discipline’s body of research ignored how different child-rearing practices around the world can dramatically influence states of development. Two psycholinguistics professors suggested that their colleagues had also made the same mistake: blithely assuming human homogeneity while focusing their research primarily on one rather small slice of humanity.

the amount of knowledge in any culture is far greater than the capacity of individuals to learn or figure it all out on their own. He suggests that individuals tap that cultural storehouse of knowledge simply by mimicking (often unconsciously) the behavior and ways of thinking of those around them.

[What does this imply regarding the tone of conversations online? That we see others behaving badly, so we do it, too? What does this imply regarding people whining and complaining about church doctrine and policy? That they see others do it, the culture changes, and they do it, too? What does this say about homosexuality and the acceptance of SSM and on and on? That the culture changes and these things become more acceptable.]

We shape a tool in a certain manner, adhere to a food taboo, or think about fairness in a particular way, not because we individually have figured out that behavior’s adaptive value, but because we instinctively trust our culture to show us the way.

Those trying to use economic incentives to encourage sustainable land use will similarly need to understand local notions of fairness to have any chance of influencing behavior in predictable ways.

Because of our peculiarly Western way of thinking of ourselves as independent of others, this idea of the culturally shaped mind doesn’t go down very easily.

different cultures foster strikingly different views of the self, particularly along one axis: some cultures regard the self as independent from others; others see the self as interdependent.

we in the West develop brains that are wired to see ourselves as separate from others may also be connected to differences in how we reason

[Why do you think some parents are so upset at little league? They want their kid to stand out from among the rest, to be the exception, rather than part of the group. Sorry, baseball was invented in a time when we were more interdependent, so we've got to play as a team. If you want an individualistic sport, go find a more modern one. Why do I struggle so much with wanting "me time"? Because I've been trained to be individualistic through my culture. Why put myself out to serve others all the time when it should just be all about me? Why even have kids? It's all about me.]

Whether you think of yourself as interdependent or independent may depend on whether your distant ancestors farmed rice (which required a great deal of shared labor and group cooperation) or herded animals (which rewarded individualism and aggression).

4/8/14 addition/continuation of the thought:  Today I was talking to my friend, Polly, explaining my journey to figure out how to better enjoy motherhood (as documented in this blog).  I told her that it wasn't that I wanted to be a career woman or not have kids, I just didn't want to be so selfless and have to serve everyone else all the time!  We live in this very individualistic culture, would this whole motherhood thing have been easier had I lived in a culture that values the group and self-sacrifice?  I guess it probably would.  I think an advantage we do have, though, is the culture of the gospel, where we are taught to give and serve.  Imagine how much  more difficult this whole motherhood journey would be even without that background.

No comments: