A universal difference

The author of Crazy Like Us, Ethan Watters, has written an excellent article on whether there’s such a thing as ‘human nature’ for the latest edition of Adbusters.

The piece tackles how scientific assumptions about the ‘universals’ of the human mind are having to be revised and discusses research which has shown how people from across the world behave markedly differently in supposedly culturally neutral tasks.

The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors, albeit in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural imperialism.

Economists and psychologists skirted 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…

Henrich’s work with the ultimatum game emerged from a small but growing counter trend in the social sciences, one in which researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition.

The article is an engaging look at this new wave of research.

Link to Is There Such a Thing as “Human Nature”?


  1. Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this link. While the topic of the article is extremely interesting, I remain extremely puzzled by the audience Adbusters is trying to recruit for its revolution. Surely it can’t me the working class when the sophisticated literary style of most of the articles is aimed at masters level graduate students.

    • rmgw
      Posted October 30, 2013 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

      “Surely it can’t me (sic)the working class” err.., is it me, or is that a wee bit classist?

      • Posted October 30, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

        You’re right. I need to try to be more tolerant of academics.

  2. Theo
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    Experimental economists, for instance, are well aware of this problem and attempt to screen for it by performing experiments with different cultures to see how they react in similar settings to undergraduate students in computer labs.

    It would be interesting, however, to think about how dealing with researchers who come into your village and give you large sums of money can influence your thinking and how you react to their stimuli.

  3. Posted October 31, 2013 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    This article has been making the rounds for quite a while: e.g., it was in Pacific Standard back in February, and that version actually has pictures which are missing in AdBusters (demonstrating the optical illusions mentioned).


  4. Nicole
    Posted October 31, 2013 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    Well aware. I’m somewhat weirded out that this is making news, even in 2010. That is the scary part. I have been talking about this subject with friends for nearly a decade. If we were older, it surely would have been longer. Try Villagers by Richard Critchfield as a basic start, or a number of articles on this blog. This article is just another numbing example of people digesting information they should have already contemplated and accounted for at almost the cellular level based on the experiment that is their own life. Many of my friends are not in science, instead we chose travel as a method of determining the universe. I think I speak on behalf of all of us – that it is culture which often gives us a reason for communicating more accurately… which we were doing long ago. Westerners just chose to forget their ancestry or not listen as if they were not, indeed and equally, the subject of debate. I liked the article because I also like to occasionally eat chicken parts compressed into a ball and sliced.

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