The Weirdest People in the World?
Psychologists often joke that their insights into human nature come from experiments with American university students, on duty for required credit or beer money. "So we see that human beings--or at least, Michigan sophomores...'' Ha-ha, chuckle-chuckle. Then, on with the PowerPoint.
It's a laughing matter because psychology's insights are supposed to be valid about all people in the way chemistry's are true of all molecules. So it shouldn't matter which people were used to establish a fact about human nature. That's the ideal, anyway. No one wants to dwell on the possibility that psychology's favorite subjects aren't representative, for the same reason few people in biomedicine discuss how supposedly normal lab mice and rats live extremely peculiar lives, which affect the experiments they're in.
Well, from now on it will be much harder to laugh about this anxiety. Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan have called out psychology's claims to universality (pdf), hammering hard on the tenuous link between very broad assertions and very particular sources of data. Their article, scheduled to appear next year in the high-profile Behavioral and Brain Sciences, says American university students are the weirdest people in the world, so data based on their reactions cannot be representative of human nature.
"Weird" is a clever Gladwellian coinage for their reform campaign: it stands for "Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic." Because most human beings, alive or dead, shared none of those traits, Henrich and his colleagues write, "the database in the behavioral sciences is drawn from an extremely narrow slice of human diversity." They document the extent of the problem, describe why it matters--specific instances in which "universal" insights from the psych lab were not borne out when the studies were done in non-OECD societies--and recommend changes.
Henrich has walked the walk on this point. He's known for working with an experimental technique that's part of the brief against "Rational Economic Man" models of behavior. It's a negotiating game in which people don't behave rationally: they value fairness too much to insist on the best deal for themselves, or accept the worst deal from another player. Many have worked with this "Ultimatum Game," but Henrich and his colleagues schlepped around doing the experiment all over the world, in fifteen different societies. Other psychologists, he argues, should either make like efforts to test non-WEIRD subjects, or set out explicitly why they believe their results can be ascribed to human nature.
It's an important paper, with (I think) a sure place on the small honor roll of work about the seldom-examined assumptions of social science. Papers like this one (full pdf here), and this one, and this. I'm not saying all these critiques are right on every point, but they all raise crucial questions. And they're good reminders that if you want to be sure you know something about the mind, you'd better know how you know it.
Henrich, et al. also have something to teach people like me and other science writers who describe psychology experiments. Standard journalistic procedure, I'm sorry to say, is often to let psychologists generalize if we agree with them (or if their work makes an appealing story). If we don't like their result, we writers point out that the people in the lab were weird, or the research was funded by the plastics industry, et cetera.
From now on, I've decided, when I write about psych experiments, I'll apply what I've come to think of as the Henrich Caveat; I will report how many different kinds of human being were the source of the data. And if those human beings are all American university students, I'll try to obtain, and convey, a Weirdness Apologia: an explicit reason why we should think such-and-such a result applies to the entire human race.
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live this Thursday at 1pm ET.
Scientists discover the inner workings of an effect that will lead to a new generation of devices.
- Researchers discover a method of extracting previously unavailable information from superconductors.
- The study builds on a 19th-century discovery by physicist Edward Hall.
- The research promises to lead to a new generation of semiconductor materials and devices.
Credit: Gunawan/Nature magazine
Students who think the world is just cheat less, but they need to experience justice to feel that way.
- Students in German and Turkish universities who believed the world is just cheated less than their pessimistic peers.
- The tendency to think the world is just is related to the occurence of experiences of justice.
- The findings may prove useful in helping students adjust to college life.
The world is just? That’s news to a lot of people.<p>The study is the most recent addition to a long line of work focusing on the belief in justice, our behavior, and our reactions to evidence that might suggest injustice occasionally occurs. This study focuses on a personal belief in a just world, (PBJW) rather than a general belief in a just world (GBJW). The difference between them must be highlighted.</p><p>GBJW is the stance that justice prevails all over the world and that people tend to get what they deserve. PBJW is more focused on the individual's social environment and their belief that they tend to be treated justly. While several studies show PBJW correlates with a higher sense of well-being and a variety of other positive effects, a high GBJW is associated with less life satisfaction, negative behavior, and callousness towards the suffering of <a href="https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-1-4939-3216-0" target="_blank">others</a>. This study controlled for GBJW, and focused on PBJW as much as possible. </p><p>To assure that culture was not a factor, the study included students at universities in both Germany and Turkey. </p><p>The researchers gave students at the four participating universities a series of questionnaires that asked if they ever cheated in class, if they perceived the world to be just, if they though that justice always prevailed everywhere, their tendencies towards socially appropriate behavior, their life satisfaction, and if they felt like they were treated justly by their teachers and fellow students. </p><p>The answers were statistically analyzed for relationships. While some of the connections seem trivially true, others were surprising. <strong></strong></p><p>PBJW turned out to only be an indirect predictor of if a student was likely to cheat. Both a belief in a just world and a lower likelihood of cheating were mediated by the justice experiences of the students, with more of these positive experiences lowering the rate of cheating and improving their belief in justice. This was also associated with higher levels of life satisfaction. </p><p>These effects existed across all demographics in both countries. </p>
What does this mean? Is a belief in justice a self-fulfilling prophecy?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/6oMv-azHNCA" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p>In a way, it seems to be. People who have reason to think the world is just to them tend to interpret events in a way to sustain that belief and behave in a just manner. In a larger sense, the take away from this study is that experiences of justice, both from peers and instructors, is vital to student's wellbeing and understanding that the rules that exist about cheating are part of a larger, legitimate, system. </p><p>The researchers, citing previous studies on the perception of justice, note that "justice experiences (1) signal that university students are esteemed members of their social group, which in turn conveys feelings of belonging and social inclusion and (2) motivate them to accept and observe university rules and norms. These cognitive processes may thus strengthen their well-being and decrease the likelihood that they cheat."</p><p>The authors also suggest that if you want people (not only students) to act justly; consider treating them with "civility, respect, and dignity."</p><p>Sometimes, all it can take to help somebody act virtuously is to treat them well. Likewise, people treated harshly can rarely find reason to play by rules that don't protect them. The findings of this study will certainly add to the literature on how we perceive justice in the world around us, but might also help us remember that there are real consequences to our actions which can be much larger than we imagine. <strong></strong></p>
This could change how researchers approach vaccine development.
- The reason children suffer less from the novel coronavirus has remained mysterious.
- Researchers identified a cytokine, IL-17A, which appears to protect children from the ravages of COVID-19.
- This cytokine response could change how researchers approach vaccine development.
A member of staff wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) takes a child's temperature at the Harris Academy's Shortland's school on June 04, 2020 in London, England.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images<p>Experts don't want to place kids at the back of the line, regardless of how strong their immune systems appear. At least one company, Moderna, <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-vaccine-for-kids-moderna-plans-pediatric-trial-2020-9" target="_blank">hopes to begin testing</a> vaccines in pediatric volunteers by year's end.</p><p>Innate immune response is especially high during childhood (compared to adaptive immunity). This makes evolutionary sense: nature wants an animal to survive until its ready to procreate. Turns out the children in the study possessed high levels of cytokines that boost their immune response. The biggest impact is made by IL-17A, which appears to protect the youngest cohort from the ravages of the coronavirus. </p><p>While both age groups produced antibodies to fight off the infamous spike protein, adults that produce neutralizing antibodies actually suffer a <em>worse</em> fate. Herold says this "over-vigorous adaptive immune response" might promote inflammation, triggering acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). </p><p>This matters for vaccine development. As Herold says, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Our adult COVID-19 patients who fared poorly had high levels of neutralizing antibodies, suggesting that convalescent plasma—which is rich in neutralizing antibodies—may not help adults who have already developed signs of ARDS. By contrast, therapies that boost innate immune responses early in the course of the disease may be especially beneficial."</p><p>Herold says current vaccine trials are focused on boosting neutralizing-antibody levels. With this new information, researchers may want to work on vaccines that boost the innate immune response instead. </p><p>With <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/science/coronavirus-vaccine-tracker.html" target="_blank">at least 55 vaccine trials</a> underway, every piece of data matters. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Researchers from the University of Toronto published a new map of cancer cells' genetic defenses against treatment.