What's Really Human?

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, August 2, 2010 | Go to article overview

What's Really Human?


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

The trouble with student guinea pigs.

Where would psychology be without lab rats--by which I mean American undergraduates? These human guinea pigs have spent hours in psych labs staring at optical illusions to reveal how the human visual system is wired. They have taken tests that reveal the need for a positive self-image--"an urge so deeply human," a psychologist said, "we can hardly imagine its absence"--and that demonstrate the "fundamental attribution error," in which people explain behavior by temperament ("she's screaming because she's an angry person") rather than situation (her kid just fingerpainted the bedroom wall).

My repeated use of the word "human" above is deliberate. When psychologists discover something in lab experiments, the findings often make their way into journals, textbooks, and popular lore as aspects of human nature: universal and the result of evolution. While some scientists voice skepticism that a discovery about college sophomores applies to, say, Tsimane tribesmen of Amazonia, all too many findings are cast as illuminating The Human Mind.

Now such skepticism is backed up by more than a hunch. Three psychology researchers have done a systematic search of experiments with subjects other than American undergrads, who made up two thirds of the subjects in all U.S. psych studies. From basics such as visual perception to behaviors and beliefs about fairness, cooperation, and the self, U.S. undergrads are totally unrepresentative, Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia and colleagues explain in a paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. They share responses with subjects from societies that are also Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD), but not with humanity at large.

Scientists have long known that American minds differ from East Asian minds. The latter think more holistically, see context and surroundings more than discrete objects, and subsume the individual to society. But given the difference in culture between the U.S. and East Asia, no one claims the American way is universal.

Many behaviors with no obvious cultural component were supposed to be. Take the optical illusion in which a line segment, A, has an--outward--pointing arrow on each end, and an identical segment, B, has an inward--pointing arrow on each. To most American undergrads, B looks longer by some 20 percent. …

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