Category Archives: humor

The Science of Human Nature Has a Serious Problem

By Daniel Hruschka

This article originally appeared on The Conversation and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Over the last century, behavioral researchers have revealed the biases and prejudices that shape how people see the world and the carrots and sticks that influence our daily actions. Their discoveries have filled psychology textbooks and inspired generations of students. They’ve also informed how businesses manage their employees, how educators develop new curricula, and how political campaigns persuade and motivate voters.

But a growing body of research has raised concerns that many of these discoveries suffer from severe biases of their own. Specifically, the vast majority of what we know about human psychology and behavior comes from studies conducted with a narrow slice of humanity—college students, middle-class respondents living near universities, and highly educated residents of wealthy, industrialized, and democratic nations.

To illustrate the extent of this bias, consider that more than 90 percent of studies recently published in psychological science’s flagship journal come from countries representing less than 15 percent of the world’s population.

If people thought and behaved in basically the same ways worldwide, selective attention to these typical participants would not be a problem. Unfortunately, in those rare cases where researchers have reached out to a broader range of humanity, they frequently find that the “usual suspects” most often included as participants in psychology studies are actually outliers. They stand apart from the vast majority of humanity in things like how they divvy up windfalls with strangers, how they reason about moral dilemmas, and how they perceive optical illusions.

Given that these typical participants are often outliers, many scholars now describe them and the findings associated with them using the acronym WEIRD, for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.

WEIRD isn’t universal

Because so little research has been conducted outside this narrow set of typical participants, anthropologists like me cannot be sure how pervasive or consequential the problem is. A growing body of case studies suggests, though, that assuming such typical participants are the norm worldwide is not only scientifically suspect but can also have practical consequences.

Consider an apparently simple pattern recognition test commonly used to assess the cognitive abilities of children. A standard item consists of a sequence of two-dimensional shapes—squares, circles, and triangles —with a missing space. A child is asked to complete the sequence by choosing the appropriate shape for the missing space.

When 2,711 Zambian schoolchildren completed this task in one recent study, only 12.5 percent correctly filled in more than half of shape sequences they were shown. But when the same task was given with familiar three-dimensional objects—things like toothpicks, stones, beans, and beads—nearly three times as many children achieved this goal (34.9 percent). The task was aimed at recognizing patterns, not the ability to manipulate unfamiliar two-dimensional shapes. The use of a culturally foreign tool dramatically underestimated the abilities of these children.

Misplaced assumptions about what is “normal” might also affect the very methods scientists use to assess their theories. For example, one of the most commonly used tools in the behavioral sciences involves presenting a participant with a statement—something like “I generally trust people.” Then participants are asked to choose one point along a five- or seven-point line ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. This numbered line is named a “Likert item” after its social psychologist originator, Rensis Likert.

Most readers of this article have likely responded to many Likert items in their lifetime, but when this tool is taken to other settings, it encounters varying success. Some people may refuse to answer. Others prefer to answer simply yes or no. Sometimes they respond with no difficulty.The Conversation

If something as apparently simple and normal as a Likert item fails in different contexts (and not in others), it raises serious questions about our most basic models of how people should perceive and respond to stimuli.

Aiming for a science of all humanity

To address these potentially vast gaps in our understanding of human psychology and behavior, researchers have proposed a number of solutions. One is to reward researchers who take the time and effort to build long-term research relationships with diverse communities. Another is to recruit and retain behavioral scientists from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Still another is to pay closer attention to the norms, values, and beliefs of study communities, whether they are WEIRD or not, when interpreting results.

A key part of these efforts will be to go beyond theories of “universal humans” and build theories that make predictions about how the local culture and environment can shape all aspects of human behavior and psychology. These include theories of how trading in markets can make people treat strangers more fairly, how some societies became WEIRD in recent centuries, and how the number of personality traits we find in a society—such as agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism—depends on the complexity of a society’s organization.

Proponents disagree on the best paths to moving beyond WEIRD science to building a science of all humanity. But hopefully some combination of these solutions will expand our understanding of both what makes us human and what creates such remarkable diversity in the human experience.

Daniel Hruschka is an anthropology professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.

This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here.


Sis and Sod #850


Sid and Sod #849


Sid and Sod #848

Tragedies and Accidents

Prime Minister Morrison and Education Minister Dan Tehan (yes, it IS Dan, believe it or not) were visiting a primary school. They were taken into a classroom where the students were discussing words and their meanings.

The teacher asked the Prime Minister whether he would care to lead a discussion on the word “Tragedy”. Not sure where this was going, the Prime Minister asked the class to give him an example.

A little boy stood up, and said, “If my best friend, who lives on a farm, was playing in the field, and a tractor ran over him, and killed him, that would be a tragedy”.

“No,” said Scott Morrison, ‘that wouldn’t be a tragedy: that would be an accident’.

A little girl raised her hand: “If the school bus had fifty boys and girls in it, and it drove over a cliff, killing everyone inside, that would be a tragedy”.

“I’m afraid not,” explained Dan Tehan; “That is what we would call a great loss.”

The room went silent. The children were convinced that most of what they though of as tragedies were not really tragedies. There were no other offers. Scott Morrison’s eyes searched the room. “Can no one here give me an example of a tragedy?”

At the back of the room, a little, be-spectacled girl put her hand up, and said in a quiet voice, “If a plane carrying you and Mr Tehan was flying over a Naval firing range and your plane was struck by friendly fire and blown to smithereens, that would be a tragedy”.

“Magnificent!” exclaimed Scott Morrison, “That’s right! And can you tell me why that would be tragedy?”

“Well,” said the girl with the quiet voice, “It has to be a tragedy, because it certainly wouldn’t be a great loss, and it probably wouldn’t be an accident.”


Sid and Sod #847

The Man Who Loved Tractors

Once there was a guy who loved tractors. They were his favorite thing in life, but he had never actually seen one, only looked at pictures. His lifetime goal was to see a tractor, but he thought that it would be impossible. He was wrong.

So one morning he wakes up to the honking of his tractor alarm clock. He gets out of his tractor bed, and puts his feet into his tractor slippers, and walks to the bathroom. He uses the tractor toilet, and washes his hands in the tractor sink with his tractor soap. Then he goes downstairs. He opens up his tractor cupboard and gets out a tractor bowl, a tractor spoon, and some cereal. Then he opens his tractor fridge and gets out some milk. He prepares his cereal and eats it at his tractor table. Then he washes the dishes in his tractor sink. He puts on his tractor shirt, tractor underwear, tractor pants, tractor socks, tractor shoes, and a tractor tie then brushes his teeth with a tractor toothbrush and then leaves for work.

When he comes home from work, he instantly takes off his tractor shoes. “It’s good to be back from that stupid fucking office job!” He murmurs. “I wish I could quit and become a farmer.” He walks to the tractor freezer and takes out some meatloaf. He puts it on a tractor plate, sits down on his tractor couch and eats while watching a tractor documentary. Then he drinks coffee from his tractor mug while reading his favorite newspaper, the Tractor Daily. It had articles talking about tractor colors, the right types of wheels and engines for your tractor, and who got a new tractor that day. He has no idea why it’s free! After he finishes, he goes upstairs and changes into his favorite tractor pajamas and gets into bed. He’s too tired to brush his teeth. As he snuggles under the covers with his tractor plushie, he dreams about seeing a real tractor.

This happens day after day after day. He’s getting really sick of this stupid boring life, and is aching for some change it arrives one night, as he’s reading the Tractor Daily on his tractor couch in his tractor pajamas. He’s flicking through boring article after boring article when suddenly he sees one that makes him stop. Apparently, on Saturday, there will be a tractor fair in his town, with real tractors! And that’s tomorrow! He immediately faints onto his tractor carpet. When he awakens, he does a little happy dance around the room. He goes and washes himself very carefully in his tractor tub with tractor soap and tractor shampoo and conditioner. When he’s done, he brushes his teeth with a tractor toothbrush and goes to sleep. That night, he dreams about the tractor fair.

It’s very early when he wakes up the next morning. It’s still dark outside as he brushes his hair and teeth over and over. When he’s done, he puts on his best tractor undies, and his best tractor shirt, and his best tractor pants, and his best tractor tie, and his best tractor shoes and socks, and his best tractor jacket. Then he runs downstairs and tries to eat some waffles, but he’s too excited to eat anything. He puts them in the tractor fridge for later, and goes out to his car. As he drives to the tractor fair, he listens to his favorite song, Tractoring Through Life. He finally gets there. It’s not even 8 yet, and the fair starts then. To kill time, he gets some coffee at a nearby cafe. Then he sees it. Only a couple of yards away. A REAL TRACTOR!!! He’s so excited! He runs over and starts to touch it, ignoring the do not touch sign. Then he starts to kiss it because no one else’s is there yet. Finally he decides: “Oh, why don’t i drive it? What’s the difference between driving a tractor and a car?” Turns out, a lot. By the time he manages to stop the tractor, he’s run over five people and has hit at least ten buildings. As he stands there getting fined by a cop, he says: “Tractors made me do this. From now on, I hate tractors!” Which is extremely stupid, because of what he’s wearing.

To drown his sorrows, he goes to a bar. As he drinks his third beer, these men come in smoking. Instantly, he inhales the smoke and spits it out the window. One asks incredulously: “How did you do that?”

The man slurs: “Oh, I’m an ex-tractor fan!”