By Anand Giridharadas
IMAGINE a country whose inhabitants eat human flesh, wear only pink hats to sleep and banish children into the forest to raise themselves until adulthood.
Now imagine that this country dominates the study of psychology worldwide. Its universities have the best facilities, which draw the best scholars, who write the best papers. Their research subjects are the flesh-eating, pink-hat-wearing, forest-reared locals.
When these psychologists write about their own country, all is well. But things deteriorate when they generalise about human nature.
They view behaviours that are globally commonplace - say, vegetarianism - as deviant. Human nature, as they define it, reflects little of the actual diversity of humankind.
This scenario may sound preposterous. But if a provocative new study is to be believed, the world already lives in such a situation - except that it is American undergraduates, not flesh-eating forest dwellers, who monopolise our knowledge of human nature.
In the study, published last month in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan - all psychologists at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver - condemn their field's quest for human universals.
Psychologists claim to speak of human nature, the study argues, but they have mostly been telling us about a group of WEIRD outliers, as the study calls them - Westernised, Educated people from Industrialised, Rich Democracies.
According to the study, 68 per cent of research subjects in a sample of hundreds of studies in leading psychology journals came from the United States, and 96 per cent from Western industrialised nations.
Of the American subjects, 67 per cent were undergraduates studying psychology - making a randomly selected American undergraduate 4,000 times more likely to be a subject than a random non-Westerner.
Western psychologists routinely generalise about 'human' traits from data on this slender sub-population, and psychologists elsewhere cite these papers as evidence.
In itself, such extrapolation is hardly fatal. Sigmund Freud built his account of human behaviour from his work on patients in Vienna and generalised for the world.
So many great analysts of human nature, from Aristotle to the Buddha, reached for transcendent human truths despite limited contact with the range of humanity.
The Canadian study's claim is not to invalidate all extrapolation so much as to suggest that American undergraduates may be especially unsuitable for it.
The study's method was to analyse a mountain of published, peer-reviewed psychology papers.
It found evidence both of a narrow research base and of the eccentricity of that base. Among the many peculiarities of the usual subjects who serve as 'universal man' are these, the study found:
- American subjects disproportionately prize choice and individualism. In a survey of six Western societies, only Americans preferred a choice of 50 ice creams to 10.
- Studies have found that Americans are all but alone in giving newborns their own room.
- Americans are also peculiar in the so-called Ultimatum Game, in which a subject receives money and must make an offer to share it. The second subject can accept or reject the offer, but if it is rejected, neither subject gets paid.
- In various places, including Russia and China, psychologists observe the rejection of excessive generosity - a demurring when offered too much. This behaviour is absent from American undergraduates.
The study's list goes on and on:
Westerners tend to define themselves by psychological traits, and non-Westerners by relationships.
In some languages, including English, directions are built around the self ('Take a right after the church'), while in other languages, they refer to immovable objects ('It is behind the church').
Americans are worse than many at overcoming common optical illusions about the length of lines. But they are better than East Asians at recalling an object when the background changes, perhaps because the latter focus on context.
The data on these differences is patchy, the study's authors acknowledge. Not enough work has been done on human variation.
The Canadian attempt was simply to synthesise the existing research and to establish with their synthesis that psychological sameness is an implausible assumption.
Some critics of the study have suggested that there are universals underlying surface differences, and that the WEIRD variables may not be the right ones.
But there has been little dispute about the premise that psychologists have extrapolated from an outlying few the ways of the global many.
It is an extrapolation with consequences. Democracy promoters tell us that all humans feel the same way about authority, despite evidence of diversity.
Economists say that all humans are self-interested rational actors, though many succumb to selfless and irrational pursuits.
Abstract rights are proclaimed for all humans, overlooking the fact that many prefer their ethics in more grounded, context-specific ways.
China, India and many other societies shy away from such universalising. Their thinkers avoid proclaiming that all humans do this or do that simply because the Chinese or the Indians do. If they began to do so, how might things change?
For now, those outside the West continue to feel a certain pressure from beyond to think in ways not their own.
The television sitcoms they watch, the books they read, the superheroes they grow up with, the PowerPoint presentations they give - these were often designed with someone else's psychology foremost in mind, in the hope that they fit universally.
One response to the WEIRD study, by the psychologist Professor Paul Rozin, is that extrapolating from Americans is acceptable because the world is Americanising.
'The US is in the vanguard of the global world,' he said, according to Science magazine, 'and may provide a glimpse into the future.'
But it is also possible that people around the world are not simply in the process of becoming like American undergraduates, and relying on WEIRD subjects can make others feel alienated, with their ways of thinking framed as deviant, not different.
Among the less-examined facets of globalisation is its psychic pressure: a force that makes people feel they are playing by others' rules, that makes their own home turf feel like an opponent's stadium.
In this WEIRD people's world, so many know only away games.
NEW YORK TIMES