We Hold These Truths to Be Universal

(A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a?conference honoring the accomplishments of Tom Ulen. One of the highlights of the conference was an unusual presentation by?Richard McAdams, who not only presented his own work but also told the audience about a cool review article by?Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan. ?Richard deserves a special thanks for highlighting a number of the piece’s neatest results.)

The behavioral revolution in economics and psychology has successfully identified and named close to three dozen biases (my?favorite behavioral folk song defines them in verse).? I had thought that these biases transcended issues of culture.? Indeed, both neoclassical and behavioral economists were united in a belief that cultural variables were of secondary importance when it came to the deep drivers of behavior.? But a series of experiments now has me thinking that the underlying heuristics are less universal.

The article,?“The Weirdest People in the World” (ungated working paper), has the startling thesis that social scientists in trying to investigate basic psychology may have erred by oversampling outlier populations.? The “Weirdest People” of the title are Western,?Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.? (The cuteness of the title is not one of the article’s strengths.)? But the idea that “we” are the exotics?usefully jars one from complacency.

The heart of the review is a catalog of experiments where the results differ markedly across different societies.

Take, for example, the Müller-Lyer illusion, which I would have bet dollars to doughnuts would be a universal trick of the eye:

Turns out not only that different societies display different degrees of illusion bias, but the U.S. subjects (represented here by subjects in Evanston, Illinois) are outliers when researchers tested for the prevalence of the illusion across more than a dozen societies throughout the world.? The WEIRD subjects, as expected, require “segment a” to be on average 20 percent longer than “segment b” before they subjectively assess the two to be the same length.? But other cultures exhibit markedly less bias.? Indeed, the “San foragers of the Kalahari seem to be virtually unaffected by the illusion”:

The non-representiveness of the United States can also be seen in experiments testing the propensity of subjects to be opportunistic.? For example, look at the results from the Dictator Game, which allows one player (the Dictactor) to decide unilaterally how a pot of money will be split with another player:

Dictators in the United States and in Canada (Sanquianga) offer nearly half of the prize to the other player.? But the “U.S. offers are nearly double that of?the Hadza, foragers from Tanzania, and the Tsimane, forager-horticulturalists from the Bolivian Amazon.”

The most bizarre results came from a two-stage game of cooperation and punishment. In the first stage, players could contribute to a public good by contributing money to a group project. “All contributions to the group project were multiplied by 1.6 and distributed equally among all partners. ” In stage 2, players could pay some of their private money to “to punish other players by taking money away from them.” What’s bizarre is who subjects from different societies choose to punish:

The green, left-hand side of the graph shows the propensity of subjects to punish players who failed to contribute to the group project.? The propensity of U.S. subjects to punish free-riders doesn’t seem weird at all.? But the U.S, Australia and the U.K. subjects were much less likely to punish players who HAD cooperated by contributing to the group project.? In other societies, “[m]any subjects?engaged in anti-social punishment; that is, they paid to reduce the earnings of “overly” cooperative individuals (those who contributed more than the punisher did).”? It might be that subjects in Oman reason: Who do you think you are, giving so much of your private money to promote a social cause?

Even the fundamental attribution error seems less fundamental when tested on non-Western cultures.? The fundamental attribution error posits inter alia that individuals tend to “ignore situational information in favor of dispositional information” when evaluating others (but overplay situational information when evaluating themselves).? So, for example, if I miss a free throw in an old gym, I’ll tend to blame it on a bent rim.? If you miss a free throw in the same gym, I’ll tend to blame it on your poor shooting prowess.? Turns out this bias is not as prevalent in other parts of the world:

East Asians are more likely than Americans to infer that behaviors are strongly controlled by the situation (Miyamoto & Kitayama 2002; Morris & Peng 1994; Norenzayan et al. 2002a; Van Boven et al. 1999), particularly when?situational information is made salient (Choi & Nisbett 1998). Grossmann and Varnum (2010) provides parallel?findings with Russians. . . . Hence, although?dispositional inferences can be found outside the West,?the fundamental attribution error seems less fundamental?elsewhere (Choi et al. 1999).

The article is also nice in that it presents evidence that some traits/biases are more universal than others.? It is an excellent entre into much larger literature.? And?the response articles which go on for 40 pages are a rich and interesting feast in and of themselves.? Overall, the article has me rethinking the universality of bedrock principles of both neoclassical and behavioral economics.? It’s good to destabilize your cherished beliefs now and again.


The fact that anyone thought so much of this is universal only tells me that most economists neglect history and anthropology. It should have been obvious that a lot of basic market assumptions are learned behaviors rather than intrinsic.

Cash McDollar

Sorry this article is too intense and there are too many charts to digest. Is it just me, or is this article too dense and inaccessible academia?

All I want to know IS: IF I think like a Carnie, where are are the most suckers?

I have been to a carnival, Bar-B-Que cook off, state fair, rodeo and the Las Vegas Strip--and that was a valuable education of deception and deceit.

Nigerian internet scams, religious revival shysters, and carpet baggers target the American South for a reason And it has been so since the days of Mark Twain.

Jeff Thompson

It sounds like the Japanese and Russians have a more fundamental realization or feeling that they're all in the same boat. Since they are much more homogeneous societies than the U.S., this makes sense.


This is really good!

Several times I have commented on this blog that the cultural aspect is often overlooked when judging people's behavior. Yes, people respond to incentives but the degree of their response is always different and is greatly determined by the culture.

Ian Kemmish

Maybe it depends on how accustomed a particular society is to taking part in psychological experiments?

Even after tax avoidance schemes, most investment bankers pay more tax than the average person. Yet in this years' UK General Election, a lot of the Liberal Democrats' good showing could be attributed to a "bash the bankers" policy of legislating away bonuses, raising the top rate of income tax and more than doubling capital gains tax. In other words - anti-social punishment.

So the graph of "mean punishment expenditures" appears not to be borne out in real life, at least for the UK. Perhaps the discrepancy arises because, between the efforts of the press and politicians, those voters didn't think they were engaged in what they would recognise in the game as anti-social punishment. So maybe the people in Oman who (according to the thesis of this article) are less used to contrived games in experiments, didn't see it as anti-social punishment in either case, in real-life or in a game.



This also means that there are probably a bunch of illusions and biases out there that science hasn't found yet. They would be ones where the effect for us westerners is pretty small, but some other population has a large effect, and they remained unfound because of selection bias. Cool


@Cash McDollar

The take home message would be that it depends on the scam. Every good carnie knows that some scams work better on some types of people. Scientists thought they had some scams that worked on everyone. Turns out not as many of them were universal as they thought.


@Jeff Thompson

Chicken or egg? That's the interesting question.


Women, ethnic and religious minority people, gay people, and people of non-professional social classes have been suggesting for years that sociological and economic studies don't take cultural variations into account. They have pointed out that an awful lot of psych and econ research is done on captive undergraduate students who have to participate as part of their grade, which just maybe might oversample those WEIRD types described above.

For their trouble they get called victimization-mongers and political correctness fanatics. Now a bunch of academics says the exact same thing and suddenly people take it seriously.

Cañada Kid

What I don't particularly like about the way the test was held is that, in American and most of Western civilization, estimations and comparisons like the line-size test are not too relevant to our lives, thanks to how many things we have to compare sizes and detail with (i.e. the internet, rulers, etc.). Other cultures, who may be third-world cultures (as many in the test were), don't have the 'lazy-man' technology available to them, forcing them to develop a comparison skill like the one tested. Maybe they rely on hunting for their meals: they would need to be able to accurately size their prey, as well as identify it while its hiding, or else they could potentially die (from hunger or their prey attacking, and being larger than anticipated). Rather than "WEIRD", we should be called LAZY.

Ann T. Hathaway

Dear Mr. Ayres,
Thanks for pointing this very interesting article out to us. I'm going to read it in full.

Ann T.


I've also heard that the sounds people hear/mimic are very different. For instance, in America, we tend to mimic a rooster in a way very different than they do in Japan. Same with cows, dogs, etc.

If our inputs and outputs are wired so differently at such basic levels, how impossibly different are we at more profound levels?

It might be the case that there simply there are no solutions to certain issues in the world. Perhaps we have no more chance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue (and other such issues) than we do of changing a sheep into a carnivorous predator.

Of course, I imagine that even if we found out that such was the case, our own way of doing things would force us to keep trying anyway.

Richard Doczy

An overall theme seems to be at work here, namely, that Americans are somehow inferior as far as objectivity is concerned. But does that then apply to the author as well? And to his analysis? What bias do these display? And if Americans are biased, how is it that they tend to do very well in the sciences, so much so that no other nationals garner so many Nobel Prizes (as last I counted). But perhaps it is par for the course that someone at The Times wants Americans to feel smaller than others.


The last segment describes the tea partiers perfectly. Don't take away my social security because I am in a tough situation, but all those lazy bums on welfare should have the rug ripped out from under them so that they will stop being so lazy and get a job.

Anton P. Nym

I've felt for years that economics is less of a field of study in its own right and more of a subset of sociology. This article does a much better job of enunciating that than anything I've come up with.

Thank you.

-- Steve

PS: Of course, Wall St. won't realise this in my lifetime. Alas.


I suppose that's why the peace process is somewhat flawed. "Fair" implicitly means "fair to everyone involved" in the US. In the Middle East, "fair" means "fair to me".

What would be interesting to know would be if other cultures were as reflective as this one ie: if someone from Oman were presented with the above data, could they understand and manipulate the American due to the specific point of view in the cooperation/punishment game?

Eileen Epworth

@ Ian Kemmish

Perhaps you stopped reading before you got to the "fundamental attribution error" section.

Investment bankers pay more in tax because they make ridiculous salaries, commissions and bonuses. In what other industry can a 28-year-old make $28M a year? The question is, do they pay more tax as a percent of income? Doubtful... The "Mean Punishment Expenditures" are proportionate to the risks they took to fuel their commissions and bonuses and the fact that the taxpayers footed the bill when their risky investments failed.


#3, you think Russia is a homogeneous society?
Never left the US, have you?


As an anthropologist, I lived in a pacific island society that chose adjectives based on the shape of an object (e.g.long),which might be an influence in perception. Historians of peasant societies note the communal interpersonal relations differences with modern industrial ones.


This is interesting, I have lived in Oman for 13 years now and I think I have an explanation for the behavior in the "Contribution/Punishment" experiment. In Oman, it is a massive taboo to make other people look bad. Even in companies, the work-rate of Omanis is rarely that high, because if anyone starts working too hard, he makes everyone else look bad, and this is a major no-no. Hence, it makes sense to punish the people who donated a lot to the project, as they made the others look bad.