Saturday, March 23, 2013

We Are Outliers

This is one of the most fascinating articles I've read in a while (h/t Ritholtz).  But like many myth busting works, it seems patently obvious as soon as it is pointed out:
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.
When unconsciously translated in three dimensions, the line with the outward-feathered ends (C) appears farther away and the brain therefore judges it to be longer. The more time one spends in natural environments, where there are no carpentered corners, the less one sees the illusion.
As the three continued their work, they noticed something else that was remarkable: again and again one group of people appeared to be particularly unusual when compared to other populations—with perceptions, behaviors, and motivations that were almost always sliding down one end of the human bell curve.
In the end they titled their paper “The Weirdest People in the World?” (pdf) By “weird” they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”
Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.
There are so many directions a discussion of this work could take.  One of the most obvious is a look at the differences of culture which explain the rural/urban divide in American politics.  Another would be to analyze how unique the presumptions of the superiority of markets are to America and other Anglo nations, and how our culture molds and justifies these presumptions.  Behavioral economics (and reality, too) has undermined many of the assumptions which are the foundation of the half century of belief in "rational markets," but this article argues, and I believe, that our whole premise of Fukuyama's "The End of History" is mainly cultural chauvinism.  There is no "right" way of doing things, and while it is undeniable that our system of democracy and capitalism (or the bastardized versions of each that we practice here in the United States) has led to tons of innovation, I have to point out that we often adapt technology from Europe that's 20 years old.

Our now dysfunctional government is the byproduct of a culture which honors trying to game the system.  Why do we have thousands of pages of regulations for Obamacare or Dodd-Frank or the EPA or anything else?  I would say it is because we are raised to look down on the government as a burden and not as the playground monitor it is.  That Jesus guy was able to sum up proper human behavior in a sentence: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  And as wikipedia points out, that is a pretty common facet of philosophy amongst cultures.  However, at least in this country of 300 million crazy vectors, laying out what is proper behavior and what isn't takes lots and lots of pages of legal bullshit.  What it amounts to is trying to describe every way the smartest people in the country might try to take advantage of the dumbest.  It would be much better if our culture was still good at shaming people into behaving properly.  Instead, banks and other corporations fuck over the dumbest people out there just to scam that extra million to put into the company bonuses, and people look around and say that, hey, they're just following the regulations, then bitch about how burdensome the regulations are.  Obviously, that is a pretty fucked up mess.

 I know the idea of society patrolling behavior and keeping it in the lines while not trampling minorities is utopian, but a combination of small-town judgementalism when it comes to economic issues, and libertarian ideas when it comes to social issues is the exact opposite of what we have in the Republican party, and while it may be what the liberal wing of the Democrats shoots for, the mainstream of the Democratic party is more relativistic in both realms.  We could also still use some of that orthodoxy in social issues, but there are a lot of mitigating factors which make it less effective.  That would be the content of a different post.

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