Cognition and behavior (getting to different ends from the same beginning)

My twitter feed has been throwing this around. I even got an email about it from a colleague.

The growing body of cross-cultural research that the three researchers were compiling suggested that the mind’s capacity to mold itself to cultural and environmental settings was far greater than had been assumed. The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do—the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like—but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception.

For instance, the different ways people perceive the Müller-Lyer illusion likely reflects lifetimes spent in different physical environments. American children, for the most part, grow up in box-shaped rooms of varying dimensions. Surrounded by carpentered corners, visual perception adapts to this strange new environment (strange and new in terms of human history, that is) by learning to perceive converging lines in three dimensions.

I think it’s funny that they’re talking about this as if it were a recent thing – the WEIRD paper has been floating around since 2009.

What I find strange is the narrative that seems to be coming out of this. It basically goes: “People used to think that people had more or less universal cognitive faculties, and so assumed everyone would respond similarly to basic stimuli. But then Henrich and others came along and showed that people respond differently to those stimuli. So now we know that cognition is shaped by culture, environment, etc.”

The conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise. You can have general mechanisms that still leads to widely varying outcomes. Simple example: if you know some basic information about the position of a billiard ball, the resistance of the table, and the force with which a cue hits the ball, you can predict where the ball is going to go. It’s just basic mechanisms at work. However, if you have several other balls on the table – meaning several more impacts, you need to know that initial information more precisely and for all the moving pieces. Michael Berry figured (in “Regular and Irregular Motion, in Topics in Nonlinear Mechanics,” ed. S. Jorna, American Institute of Physics Conference Proceedings No. 46, 16-120, 1978) that to correctly predict the ninth impact, you need to take into account the gravitational pull of the people around the pool table. Predicting the fifty-sixth requires you to consider every particle in the universe. It’s the same basic (universal)  mechanisms at work, but wildly divergent outcomes depending on initial conditions that can’t be fully known beforehand.

The outcomes of Henrich’s and others’ experiments don’t show that cognition is changed by the environment in the sense of people “thinking differently.” They just as plausibly show that thinking the same way about different things leads to different outcomes. That’s an important finding, but doesn’t sound nearly as sexy. To be clear, I think this is less a problem of Henrich et al’s interpretation of their findings and more a problem of how those findings are interpreted in pithy popular write-ups.

It seems to me that people used to think the ultimatum game was measuring first or maybe third or fourth impact (using people as impacted object instead of a billiard ball), and could therefore be assumed to approximate first impact or even initial conditions. Instead, what they’ve found is that the game itself is something like the 20th or 30th impact, and that the outcomes result from the cumulative history of the previous impacts more than they result from the little nudge from the anthropologist/psychologist/economist.

I get a little up in arms when people point to differences in behavior as evidence that things “mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception.” It ignores all the behavioral similarities that persist across different environments and histories, and it assumes different initial conditions instead of demonstrating them.


5 thoughts on “Cognition and behavior (getting to different ends from the same beginning)

  1. How interesting. I am actually researching in the area of cross-cultural communication. May I ask you: which academic centres, worldwide, do you think are the most interested in the area?

  2. The area of cross-cultural communication in general? I don’t know if there’s really an answer to that question. I think any anthropology department and most sociology and psychology departments would have people who think of themselves as studying cross-cultural communication, not to mention actual “communication” departments. I think it all depends on what, more specifically, you want to study, and also to some extent on the contexts in which you want to study them.

  3. Thanks for this post and it is about time someone got up in arms about the WEIRD paper. From a methodology perspective, I find it troubling (more like infuriating) to use the results from lab-like experiments (games etc) to compare entire cultures. Ethnographers spend years submersed in a culture. Thanks for pointing to the Human Universals book as well. Every mention of the WEIRD paper should be responded with – “Read that book first!”

  4. I don’t mind the use of experiments in the field – I think we (social scientists in general) ought to use every tool available to us. And as someone who has actually practiced ethnography, I’m as skeptical about the ability of that method (as if it were coherent enough to actually label it a method) to provide generalizable insights as I am about any other method. My issue is more with the interpretation of the WEIRD paper than with the paper itself. At it’s core, this seems to be an issue of people assuming a research tools can yield generalizable findings without calibration. All tools require calibration. I think the WEIRD paper, along with insights from work like the Human Universals book, could be profitably used as a first step to calibrating economic experiments and other research technologies.

  5. Pingback: What happens in society, stays in …the brain? | House of Stones

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