The Difference Between Americans and Humans?

The academic psychologist Joseph Henrich brought the Ultimatum game to the Amazon jungle and found that the Maschiguenga people of southeastern Peru make decisions like economists: “[T]hey felt rejecting was absurd, which is really what economists think about rejection. It’s completely irrational to turn down free money.” This led him to hypothesize that maybe they’re not the outliers — but that we Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic (weird) folks are. His new paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences asks a trenchant question: since 96% of the test subjects in behavioral science are from the West, with the U.S. owning 70% of all journal citations, can such experimental results really speak for the entire human race? [%comments]


My intuition is that how cultural groups see this (and the world in in general) is correlated to availability of calories. Where calories are scarce, it would be foolhardy to reject even a little bit that can sustain your survival. Group cooperation also is advantageous. Where calories are abundant, you easily can afford much more altruistic generosity and individuality.

Brian S

My understanding was formerly that the ultimatum game was played with an extremely diverse population. If the above is true, then the question "can data primarily gathered on Americans be applied to wider ranges of people?" is an emphatic NO.

Eric M. Jones

Since 98% of the books on human psychology are written by men, I have always suspected that women's psychology has not been well represented in the literature.


Valid question, but it doesn't mean we should evenly distribute our subjects across the globe. Obviously the west has more incentive to learn how westerns think than a hypothetical average human. If we want to solve the west's economic and political problems, or make projections about behavior in the west, we need to study westerners.

The biggest impact I see this having is on developmental econ, where you might want to do some testing on the population in the area you are trying to develop and adjust your strategies based on how they interpret signals/incentives.

Ian Kemmish

Isn't that sample also hugely skewed towards undergraduate students? I've only twice been asked to take part in psychology experiments, both times while I was at Cambridge. And if you watch a documentary about this stuff on TV, the experimental groups are almost always exclusively composed of students.

As a layman (and mathematician and software engineer), I've always ASSUMED that these experiments only describe the behaviour of undergraduates. If the experts really are assuming that the results are universal, it would be a rare example of the scientists being less cautious than the laymen!

I'd even wager a modest amount that if you played the Ultimatum Game with middle-aged people, a significant number would refuse to play at all, suspecting a scam. Avoiding scams is one situation in which turning down "free money" is indeed rational.


Assuming that people only care about money is rather unjustified. If you value punishing the greedy more than whatever money you would have gotten, then the 'correct' response is to reject the offer.


Ian: Not turning down free money is also the explanation for the undergraduates' participation in psych experiments - further skewing the pool. Not to mention that a lot of those undergraduates are serial study participants who may themselves have studied psychology.


I'd bet that there is a pretty strong correlation between the level of competition in a society and the rejection rate in the game. In more competitive societies, people are more likely to measure their own wealth relative to their peers and the rejection point is likely to be higher. In more cooperative societies the participants are less likely to worry about what the other person gets, thus a lower rejection point.

michael webster

Ungated version of the paper, for people who wish to read before commenting.


Well, if you're going to write a blurb, at least be more detailed than this. The fact is the study showed there is a difference between industrialized and non-industrialized, with American's on the far extreme of industrialized, did it not? Seems to be where we belong, on the far end of industrialized, doesn't it?

I would argue that this paper shows psychological evolution so to speak. Granted I think at some point in the recent past or near future we will have reached the peak and begin a de-evolutionary process.

Anyway, there is much more to the studies than this paragraph lets on, and frankly, I don't think this shoud have been allowed to be posted as is.


I wonder if the difference is related to the item being offered. We Americans have created our entire system to be based on money. I wonder if substituting something of equal value in the minds of the non-Americans would change the behavior.

Juan Camilo Esguerra

Remember that phenotype is result of the interaction of genotype and environment... so it is kind of obvious that different environments generate different psychological behaviors.
But as Dr. Bennis said, there are behavioral tendencies in humans that, I think, are backed by the influence of the western culture in the societies around the world.
So probably you guys are weird but not that weird.


Sounds like the decision of the non-Westerner to not turn down 'free money' is a great way to be taken advantage of. If a foreign power with the means to extract your resources says "Hey, let us into your country and we'll give you 25 cents for every $100 we make" and you happily accept, well...

Mike B

From what I read of the non-Western Ultimatum Game studies was simply that people from other parts of the world would accept less fair outcomes, however they would not accept just ANY outcome. The Average was something like 20% instead of 40% which still proves the point of the study that humans will punish actions that they consider unfair.

This is exactly that one would expect to find in a world where the large majority of the population is content to live in grossly unequal conditions. Why do people willingly work in sweatshops or stand for corrupt governments? Well its because they have no other viable options. It's the old adage that beggars can't be choosers. Still, people will always punish unfairness to the best of their ability. You can pay someone unfair wages, just don't expect them to work very hard.


Please this is so simple.

Rankism is an assertion of superiority. It typically takes the form of putting others down. It's what "Somebodies" do to "nobodies." Or, more precisely, it is what people who think they're Somebodies do to people they take for nobodies.

So, actually, for some, it is perfectly rationale to turn down free money. I could continue, but simply said: Rankism explains why Americans offer around 1/2.



The explanation of democratic values is not convincing. If results had gone the other way we'd be talking about Americans' rugged individualism and moral acceptance of the profit motive.


"I think there's just one type of folks, Jem. Folks."

R.E. the Western source bias, it's been well known since the 1980's studies into IQ distribution around the globe. Despite better diets, longer lifestyles and the Flynn effect, the effect size between IQs from people from the 1st world versus 3rd world vary more due to cultural differences in the presentation of the IQ tests rather than innate differences.

This is (should be) why no-one today believes Europeans are inherently cleverer than Africans. The difference either way is insignificant compared to other confounding factors in IQ tests.

I think it very unlikely that any significant difference exists in peoples' innate cognitive patterns around the world. Environmental effects, on the other hand...


Ignoring the cultural aspect of human behavior has always been the weakest point in Freakonomics IMHO.

Yes, humans respond to incentives but HOW they respond is largely determined by their culture.


I teach Henrich's work in my behavioral economics classes, and I must have missed the part where he speculates that Western society is an outlier.

The Ultimatum Game has been played all over the world. When it's played in industrialized societies, the results show quite strongly that people reject low offers (though the definition of "low" varies a little, but not by a lot), and people are willing to reject large sums of money in countries like Indonesia and Slovenia, where researchers can afford to pay what counts as large sums of money.

Henrich et al ran variants of the game in many non-industrialized societies, and found much more heterogeneity of behavior. Yes, the Machiguenga acted much more like homo economicus than anyone else, but they were just one group. There were also numerous societies in which people offered more than 50%--and some in which such offers were rejected.

The most parsimonious interpretation of this body of work is that culture can greatly affect ultimatum game play, but that industrialization and market integration tend to push people to reject low offers (and to extend non-low offers).



based on my two psych classes at uni, yeah, psychology is more akin to sociology. Anthropology seems to have more to say about the human condition.