The Origin and Evolution of Cultures

By Robert Boyd; Peter J. Richerson | Go to book overview

5
Norms and Bounded
Rationality

Do Norms Help People Make Good Decisions
without Much Thought?

Many anthropologists believe that people follow the social norms of their society without much thought. According to this view, human behavior is mainly the result of social norms and rarely the result of considered decisions. In recent years, there has been increased interest within anthropology in how individuals and groups struggle to modify and reinterpret norms to further their own interests. However, we think it is fair to say that most anthropologists still believe that culture plays a powerful role in shaping how people think and what they do.

Many anthropologists also believe that social norms lead to adaptive behavior; by following norms, people can behave sensibly without having to understand why they do what they do. For example, throughout the New World, people who rely on corn as a staple food process the grain by soaking it in a strong base (such as calcium hydroxide) to produce foods like hominy and masa (Katz, Hediger, and Valleroy, 1974). This alkali process is complicated, requires hard work, and substantially reduces the caloric content of corn. However, it also increases the amount of available lysine, the amino acid in which corn is most deficient. Katz et al. argue that alkali processing plays a crucial role in preventing protein deficiency disease in regions where the majority of calories are derived from corn. Traditional peoples had no understanding of the nutritional value of alkali processing; rather, it was a norm: we Maya eat masa because that is what we do. Nonetheless, by following the norm, traditional people were able to solve an important and difficult nutritional problem. The work of cultural ecologists, such as Marvin Harris (1979), provides many other examples of this kind, although

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