Behavioral and Brain Sciences, John Brockman, Jonathan Haidt, Mercier, new science, Paul Bloom, psychology, reasoning, Sperber, thinking, WEIRD
I read that book (being collection of essays about new science of decision-making, problem-solving and prediction) with interest, but what really made me jump was a transcript from Edge Conference titled The New Science of Morality, where Jonathan Haidt, Professor, New York University Stern School of Business, gave his talk. He said the following:
“[…] I want to talk about two giant warning flags – two articles published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS), under the wise editorship of Paul Bloom. And I think that these articles are so important that the abstracts from those two articles should be posted in psychology departments all over the country […]. So, the first article is called “The Weirdest People in the World” by Joe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ara Norenzayan [..] the authors begin by noting that psychology as a discipline is an outlier in being the most American of all the scientific fields. Seventy percent of all citations in major psych journals refer to articles published by Americans. In chemistry, by contrast, the figure is just 37 percent. This is a serious problem, because psychology varies across cultures, and chemistry doesn’t.
So, in the article, they start by reviewing all the studies they can find that contrast people in industrial societies with small-scale societies. And they show that industrialized people are different, even at some fairly low-level perceptual processing, spatial cognition. Industrialized societies think differently.
The next contrast is Western versus non-Western, within large-scale societies. And there, too, they find that Westerners are different from non-Westerners, in particular on some issues that are relevant for moral psychology, such as individualism and the sense of self.
Their third contrast is America versus the rest of the West. And there, too, Americans are the outliers, the most individualistic, the most analytical in their thinking styles.
And the final contrast is, within the United States, they compare highly educated Americans to those who are not. Same pattern.
All four comparisons point in the same direction, and lead them to the same conclusion […] “Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies.” The acronym here being WEIRD. “Our findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Overall, these empirical patterns suggest that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature, on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin and rather unusual slice of humanity”.
Wow. I wanted to say…. So typically American. But that has a lot of implications as it is quite possible that the rest of Western psychologists actually pay attention and draw from that “science” (what also number of citations would suggest). No wonder that Americans, Germans, or whole Western (WEIRD) world have no idea about the morality of Syrians or Afghans… or any other non-Western people. It is quite possible that the same set of theories makes it into politics.
Second article “[…] called “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory”, by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. The article is a review of a puzzle that has bedeviled researchers in cognitive psychology and social cognition for a long time. The puzzle is, why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others? […] Why is the confirmation bias, in particular – this is the most damaging one of all – so ineradicable? That is, why do people automatically search for evidence to support whatever they start off believing, and why is it impossible to train them to undo that? It’s almost impossible. Nobody’s found a way to teach critical thinking that gets people to automatically reflect on, well, what’s wrong with my position?
And finally, why is reasoning so biased and motivated whenever self-interest or self-preservation are at stake? Wouldn’t it be adaptive to know the truth in social situations, before you then try to manipulate?
The answer, according to Mercier and Sperber, is that reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. […] So, as they put it […] “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.”
Next time you reason with your boos, you know why he does not necessarily makes any sense logically. Or for that matter, your wife. But hey – it maybe that you too are stuck in your false belief and reason yourself into it 🙂