The U.S. Is Just Different — So Let’s Stop Pretending We’re Not (Ep. 469)

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We often look to other countries for smart policies on education, healthcare, infrastructure, etc. But can a smart policy be simply transplanted into a country as culturally unusual (and as supremely WEIRD) as America?

Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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How much time have you spent thinking about what makes America, America? It may help if you’re not originally from here.

John OLIVER: When was that moment that America became the most American America it could possibly be? 

Hannah GADSBY: Have you ever noticed how Americans are not stupid?

Kumail NANJIANI: I was so excited to be in America I couldn’t sleep. 

The comedians John Oliver, Hannah Gadsby, and Kumail Nanjiani all grew up outside the U.S. When you’re trying to understand the nature of something, an outside view can be extremely helpful. Did you know there is an entire academic field called cross-cultural psychology?

Michele GELFAND: It’s a subfield of psychology that tries to understand what’s universal, what’s similar, and what’s culture-specific.

Michele Gelfand is one of the premier practitioners of cross-cultural psychology. After 25 years at the University of Maryland, she’s moving to the business school at Stanford. Why the business school?

GELFAND: We’re fiercely interdisciplinary. We do lab experiments, field experiments, computational modeling. We bring in neuroscience to understand all things cultural. 

You might think that someone who studies cross-cultural psychology also grew up abroad, or at least in some big city with a melting-pot vibe. But no.

GELFAND: I grew up on Long Island. You have to pronounce it right. 

Long Island, New York, is the birthplace of the American suburb.  

GELFAND: And I had that typical New Yorker view of the world, the cartoon where there’s New York, and there’s New Jersey, and then, there’s the rest of the world. 

When it was time for college, Gelfand went all the way to upstate New York: Colgate University. She was majoring in pre-med. But then she took a semester abroad, to London.

GELFAND: I really had a lot of culture shock. I was on the phone with my dad, and I said, “You know, it’s really crazy, all the differences between the U.K. and the U.S.”

Now, keep in mind this was London, English-speaking London — not Uzbekistan or Botswana, even Mexico. Still, Gelfand’s horizons were suddenly expanded; and her curiosity was triggered.

GELFAND: The next day, I booked a trip to Egypt. It was there, and later on in travels in the Middle East, and working on a kibbutz, and elsewhere, that I started recognizing this really powerful force of culture that was incredibly important but really invisible. I came back to Colgate. And I shifted from pre-med into what turned into a career of cross-cultural psychology. 

In 1990, when Gelfand was a graduate student, she followed the news as Iraq invaded Kuwait. U.S. President George H.W. Bush made clear to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein that this wouldn’t stand. But Bush also wanted to avoid going to war with Iraq.

GELFAND: I was watching this negotiation between Tariq Aziz and James Baker.

Baker was Bush’s secretary of state; Aziz was Hussein’s deputy prime minister. President Bush had framed these negotiations as going an “extra mile for peace.”

GELFAND: And there was discussion in the cross-cultural psychology community about how James Baker’s unemotional communication style was received as “This is not so serious,” in terms of Tariq Aziz’s understanding of Americans’ intentions. 

But it was serious. The negotiations didn’t work out. The U.S. assembled a coalition of allies.

George H.W. BUSH: Just two hours ago—. 

And invaded Iraq.

BUSH: Allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. These attacks continue as I speak.

GELFAND: And I thought, “If these kinds of cultural differences are happening at the highest levels, we better start understanding this stuff.” 

The reason we reached out to Michele Gelfand is that I want to understand this stuff better, too. Let me give a little background. On many Freakonomics Radio episodes, we’ll hear about some idea or policy that works well elsewhere in the world but hasn’t taken root in the U.S. In Germany, for instance, labor unions often have a representative on company boards, which can radically change the dynamic between companies and employees. We’ve interviewed dozens of academic researchers about lowering healthcare costs or improving access to childcare or building smarter infrastructure or creating a more equitable economy. And so often, they’ll just point at some other country on the map. They’ll say, “The Scandinavians have great childcare and family-leave policies.” Or they’ll say, “China has built more high-speed rail in the past few years than the U.S. has even thought about.” So, naturally, the next question is: can’t the U.S. just borrow these Scandinavian and Chinese and German ideas and slap them on top of the American way of doing things?

The answer to that is usually: no, you can’t. Why not? Because for all the so-called globalization of the past half-century or so, the U.S. still differs from other countries in many ways. Historically, politically, and — yes — culturally. Culturally maybe more than anything! One of the defining features of Americanism is our so-called “rugged individualism.” You might even call it wild individualism. It’s part of our founding D.N.A. This individualism has produced tremendous forward progress and entrepreneurial energy. But it can make life harder for the millions of Americans who aren’t so entrepreneurial, or rugged, or individualistic. The American model is among the most successful — and envied — models in the history of the world. But it’s also a tremendous outlier.

You can see this on many dimensions: how we work and travel; how we mate and marry; how we care for our children and our elderly; how we police; how we conceive the relationship between the individual and the state; even how we manage death! So it’s hard to simply transplant another country’s model for education or healthcare, no matter how well it might seem to fit. This realization is what led us to today’s episode of Freakonomics Radio. We’ll call it “The U.S. Is Very Different from Other Countries — So Let’s Stop Pretending It’s Not.” It’s the first in a series of episodes where we’ll look at different pieces of that difference. Today, an overview of the cultural differences. We will learn which countries are tight, which are loose, and why. We’ll find out what it means to be WEIRD — although not weird in the way you’re thinking. And yes, we’ll talk about what makes America, America — at least as seen through the eyes of Kumail Nanjiani, who was born in Pakistan.

NANJIANI: I was so excited to be in America I couldn’t sleep. My uncle’s like, “Hey, I have something to show you.” My first day in America, he showed me the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And I was like, “This is every day in America! As advertised!”

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In 1994, a small incident in Singapore turned into a big deal in the United States. Michele Gelfand again:

GELFAND: This American teenager from Ohio, Michael Fay, was in Singapore and was arrested and charged with various counts of vandalism and other shenanigans. 

Michael Fay wasn’t a tourist; he was living in Singapore with his family, attending an American school.

GELFAND: And it caused a real international crisis because the Singapore government gave him what was then classic punishment, which was caning. 

Caning as in a spanking, basically, on the bare buttocks, with a half-inch-thick rattan cane. 

GELFAND: In the U.S., various newspapers covered the story. 

The T.V. networks, too.

Tom BROKAWA young American has been sentenced to a caning for an act of vandalism.

And it got the attention of President Clinton:

Bill CLINTON: It’s the first I’ve heard of it, I’ll look into it. 

GELFAND: Clinton went to negotiate to say, “Hey, this is just totally inappropriate, this punishment.” And the Singaporean government’s reaction was, “Look, this is our culture. If you’re violating the social order, you’re going to be punished.”

So the Singapore government says, “Look, this is our culture…” The rest of that sentence didn’t have to be said. It was: “And your culture, your American culture, is very different.” At this point, we should probably define terms. What is “culture”?

GELFAND: Yeah, it’s a classic question. 

It was back in grad school that Michele Gelfand first asked herself this question.

GELFAND: I was planning to become a cross-cultural trainer to work at the State Department and train people to understand culture. 

This interest goes back to those negotiations between Jim Baker and Tariq Aziz. But Gelfand saw an even bigger question: How can you understand culture if you don’t know exactly what it is? So, what is it?

GELFAND: It’s like that story of two fish where they’re swimming along. And they pass another fish, who says, “Hey, boys, how’s the water?” And they’re like, “What the heck is water?”

Here’s another culture metaphor — another watery one — from the Dutch culture scholar Gert Jan Hofstede.

Gert Jan HOFSTEDE: Culture is the ripples on the ocean of human nature. It’s the tiny differences in sociality. Culture is about, if you are a part of a society, you’re like one drop in the Mississippi River. You may decide to go another way, but that doesn’t make the river change. 

Scholars in this realm have a general agreement on what culture is and what it’s not. Culture is not genetics or biology or individual characteristics. It’s more about how individuals are acted upon by the people and institutions around them. And they often don’t even realize they’re being acted upon.

Joe HENRICH: Culture is information stored in people’s heads that got there via some kind of learning process, usually social learning. 

That’s Joe Henrich, a professor of evolutionary biology.

HENRICH: And this can include motivations, heuristics, biases, beliefs. It’s trying to include all the stuff that we acquire as a consequence of growing up in different environments, and contrast that with things like our sex drive, which doesn’t seem to be acquired by observing others. 

So, culture is about values, beliefs, absorbed ideas and behaviors. But here’s the thing about culture: it can be really hard to measure. Which is probably why we don’t hear all that much about the science of culture. When something is not easily measured, it often gets talked about in mushy or ideological terms. Michele Gelfand wasn’t interested in that. She did want to measure culture, and how it differs from place to place. She decided that the key difference, the right place to start measuring, was whether the culture in a given country is tight or loose.

GELFAND: All cultures have social norms, these unwritten rules that guide our behavior on a daily basis. But some cultures strictly abide by their norms. They’re what we call tight cultures. And other cultures are more loose. They’re more permissive. 

DUBNER: Are you the creator of the looseness-tightness system for looking at culture? 

GELFAND: Well, we can look back to Herodotus. He contrasts places like Egypt, that had strict rules for authority and gender and purity, with the Persians who, using my terminology, he would have said that they were quite loose. Later on, fast forward, Pertti Pelto, who’s an anthropologist. He wrote a paper about it. And this paper was basically sitting in the shelves of libraries for many years. And when I started to work with Harry Triandis, who was one of the founders of the field, I thought, “Wow, this is a super-interesting construct. So, let’s try to measure this.”

Gelfand and several colleagues undertook a massive research project, interviewing some 7,000 people from 33 countries on five continents. They made sure to include a variety of ages, occupations, religions, social and economic classes. Here’s one of the questions they asked. “If someone acts in an inappropriate way, will others strongly disapprove in this country?” Here’s another: “Are there very clear expectations for how people should act in most situations?” In 2018, Gelfand published a book of these findings called Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. Tight cultures, she writes, “are usually found in South and East Asia, the Middle East, and in European countries of Nordic and Germanic origin.”

Loose cultures tend to be found in English-speaking countries as well as Latin-American, Latin-European, and formerly Communist cultures. The United States, you may not be surprised to learn, is on the loose end of the spectrum — although not in the top five. The five loosest countries according to this analysis were Ukraine, Estonia, Hungary, Israel, and the Netherlands. Australia and Brazil are also loose. The five tightest countries are Pakistan, Malaysia, India, South Korea, and our old friend Singapore. China, Japan, and Turkey are also tight. Now, let’s pull back and make an important point: labeling a given country tight or loose is an overall, aggregate measurement. Within countries, there is of course enormous variation. There are plenty of looser people in tight countries and vice versa. But remember what Hofstede told us:

HOFSTEDE: You’re like one drop in the Mississippi River. You may decide to go another way, but that doesn’t make the river change. 

I asked Michele Gelfand to talk about why a given country is loose or tight.

GELFAND: In cross-cultural psychology, we study how ecological and historical factors cause the evolution of differences. And there’s large differences around the world, for example, on how much cultures are exposed to chronic threat. And that really can help explain some variation — not all, but some variation — in norms and values.

“Chronic threat” meaning a country is prone to natural disasters, or disease, or hostile invaders.

GELFAND: Exactly. So, Japan has been hit by Mother Nature for centuries. Or more human-made threats, like how many times has your nation been invaded over the last 100 years? Groups that tend to have threat tend to develop stricter rules to coordinate.

DUBNER: So between not having been historically a terrible recipient of viruses and also by dint of having an ocean on either side of us, etc., and being a really big and really rich country, it sounds like the U.S. must have one of the lowest inherent threat levels.

GELFAND: We’ve had our share of threat, but just not chronic threat. Compared to other countries — including places like Japan, Singapore, Germany — we can afford to be more permissive. 

DUBNER: When I look at the loosest country in the data, I see Ukraine. And I think, “Holy cow, Ukraine is surrounded by threat, including its next-door neighbor, Russia.” That relationship has not been a constant, but that makes me a little suspicious.

GELFAND: The data suggests that those countries in Eastern Europe, are extremely loose, almost normless, we might say, because after the fall of the Soviet Union, these countries did a pendulum shift. And that happens a lot. What we saw in Egypt was very similar. We had a very tight social order. When they took out Mubarak, this went the opposite extreme to almost anomie, normlessness. 

As for the U.S., Gelfand says the U.S. is not only loose but getting progressively looser.

GELFAND: We analyzed shifts in tightness over 200 years. We developed these linguistic dictionaries to analyze language reflective of tight and loose, in newspapers and books, tight words like “restrain,” “comply,” “adhere,” “enforce,” as compared to words like “allow” and “leeway,” “flexibility,” “empower”. And we can see a strong trend that looseness has increased over the last 200 years. 

But even a loose country will tighten up when a threat arises.

GELFAND: Like during 9/11, during World Wars, we see increases in tightness. During the Cold War. We had a lot of struggles with tightening during Covid, clearly. 

Gelfand says the countries that were most aggressive in trying to contain Covid tended to be tighter countries. Singapore, for instance.

NEWSCASTER: Wearing masks is a way of life now in Singapore. For the last few months, the city-state has seen just a handful of Covid-19 cases.  

Tightness and compliance would seem to go hand-in-hand. But it’s not only compliance. Here’s the dean of the National University of Singapore’s school of public health:

YIK-YING TEO: We have a tradition of having national campaigns to galvanize people to proceed in a common direction. And I think this community-spiritedness has been built in us since we were very young.

Michele Gelfand and several co-authors recently published a study in The Lancet about how Covid played out in loose versus tight cultures. Controlling for a variety of other factors, they found that looser countries — the U.S., Brazil, Italy, and Spain — have had roughly five times the number of Covid cases and nearly nine times as many deaths as tighter countries. But, let’s look at the pandemic from a different angle: which country produced the most effective Covid-19 vaccines? Tightness may create compliance; but looseness can drive innovation and creativity.

GELFAND: The U.S. is one of the most creative places on the planet. Like, you saw in the U.S. trying to locate Covid in sewage. That’s a crazy, creative solution to try to deal with the pandemic.  

Gelfand has spent a lot of time trying to understand how a given country’s looseness or tightness affects everyday life. Once you begin looking for evidence, you see an almost infinite array of examples. Investing, for instance:

GELFAND: There’s some research coming from the University of Georgia that found that buying and selling of stocks was more synchronized in tighter cultures as compared to looser cultures.  

A tight country like Germany tends to set strict limits on noise, with mandated “quiet hours.” New York City, meanwhile, has been called not just “the city that never sleeps,” but “the city that never shuts up.” Tight countries tend to have very little jaywalking, or littering — or, God forbid, dog poop on the sidewalks. You can even see the evidence in the clocks that appear on city streets.

GELFAND: In Germany and in Japan, the clocks are really synchronized. In Brazil and Greece, you’re not entirely sure what time it is.

You might think that these relatively minor differences don’t add up to much. Gelfand would disagree. She says these are merely visible indicators of a country’s tightness or looseness — and it’s what you don’t necessarily see that shapes a given country’s culture. By the way, Gelfand doesn’t really take a position on whether loose or tight is superior. She argues that both styles have their upsides and their downsides. A loose country, like the U.S., tends to do well in creativity and innovation; in tolerance and openness; in free speech and a free press. The downsides of looseness are less coordination, less self-control; more crime and quality-of-life problems.

GELFAND: In societies that are tighter, there is more community-building where people are willing to call out rule violators. Here in the U.S., it’s actually a rule violation to call out people who are violating norms.  

She sees the lack of self-control in loose countries as particularly worrisome.

GELFAND: So, that has a lot of other effects on debt, on alcoholism, on recreational drug use. It also is related to obesity. Apparently over 50 percent of cats and dogs in the U.S. are obese

DUBNER: Get out of here.

GELFAND: My own sweet Portuguese water dog, Pepper, I mean, that dog is just gigantic. She likes to eat human food. And she doesn’t love to exercise. She’s not very disciplined. 

You could argue that Pepper’s owner is the one who isn’t very disciplined. I hate to call out Michele Gelfand, but even in the loosest of cultures, dogs don’t have unfettered access to food. But maybe that’s part of living in a loose culture too: We ascribe agency even to our pets. In any case, here’s how Gelfand breaks down the upsides and downsides of tight cultures. Essentially, they’re the opposite of the loose attributes: tight cultures have more coordination and more self-control.

GELFAND: If you’re in contexts where there’s a lot of rules, you develop from a very early age that impulse control.

This leads to less obesity, less addiction, and there’s less crime in tighter cultures. Those are the upsides. The downsides: less innovation, less openness to ideas that challenge the status quo, and less tolerance for differences in religion and race. In one experiment, Gelfand sent a bunch of research assistants to different places around the world.

GELFAND: They were trained to ask for help in city streets and in stores. And in one condition, I had them wearing these fake facial warts. Like, you can buy them on the internet. In another condition, they were wearing tattoos and nose rings and purple hair. And then in a third condition they were wearing just their face. 

Gelfand wanted to learn where they’d get the most help.

GELFAND: And it was fascinating because when people were wearing their normal face, there was no difference.

No difference, that is, between tight and loose cultures.

GELFAND: But when people were wearing those really weird nose rings or those facial warts, they got far more help in loose cultures. There’s far less stigmatization of people in terms of their race, their religion.

This does not mean that no one in a loose culture, like the U.S., is stigmatized or mistreated.

GELFAND: We have a lot of work to do, there’s no question. But relatively speaking, we have more tolerance.  

Again, it’s worth repeating that no culture is a monolith. How do racial and ethnic minorities fit into the American looseness?

Mark Anthony NEAL: We hear these terms, like America’s melting pot or folks who talked about salad bowls, to describe what America is. 

That’s Mark Anthony Neal of Duke University.

NEAL: You have no real other example of a country that has brought together so many different national and ethnic and racial backgrounds.  

Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies. He has written several books about what music and other pop culture has to say about the broader culture.

NEAL: We think about improvisation in the context, obviously, of creative and musical terms, but it’s also a way of always having to adapt to the changing political, social, and cultural realities. And I think that is a hallmark of African-American culture in this country.

And how does a scholar like Neal think about culture per se? 

NEAL: I think it’s helpful to think about culture in terms of a big “C” and a little “c,” the little “c” being those everyday things that we sometimes don’t elevate to a level of culture. And then there’s the big “C,” the stuff that we have these big conversations about, that we do these incredible studies about, which is really about the worldview of groups of people coming together, in a community, in a nation, in a family, right? But the big “C” in my mind is very different than the little “c.” 

GELFAND: Groups that are of lower status tend to live in tighter worlds. 

Michele Gelfand again:

GELFAND: And that suggests that minorities, women, people of different sexual orientation, when they violate the same rule, might be held to higher accountability, to more strict punishment. For example, we asked bank managers some years ago to look through scenarios of people violating organizational rules, like coming to work late, staying on the phone too long, maybe checking their email. And we manipulated whether their names were like Jamal or Latisha versus Brad and Lorna. These are stereotypical names. And we found that people from minority or even women backgrounds were seen as violating something more severely and were subject to higher punishment without even people realizing this. 

So the general rules of a loose — or tight — culture may not be consistently applied to all populations. And there are other inconsistencies, especially in a country as large and diverse as the U.S. For instance, where you live.

GELFAND: We have a whole new map of the U.S. where we can actually rank-order the U.S. 50 states in terms of how much threat they have.  

Because remember, threat is what can drive tightness.

GELFAND: Places in the South have tended to have more natural disasters. They tend to veer tighter on our measures than places on the coast. Also, the people who settled in different areas in the U.S. brought with them their own cultural norms and values, and set the stage for different levels of tight-loose within the nation. 

DUBNER: Where is the loosest place in America? 

GELFAND: I would say it tends to be California. Now, California is a real interesting exception because it has a lot of threat. But somehow, that diversity and that early celebration of permissiveness has overridden that. People tend to be super-creative and there’s a lot of negotiation of rules. Mobility also produces looseness, because it’s harder to agree upon any norm. The people that came to New York early on, in the early 1800’s, they were from all sorts of different cultural backgrounds. And that’s helped to produce the looseness that exists to this day. People who went out to California, I would say if we gave them the tight-loose mindset quiz, they were probably on the looser mindset. They were those kinds of Chaos Muppets, because they were risk-seeking. 

What’s a Chaos Muppet? you ask. The lawyer and journalist Dahlia Lithwick once argued that “every living human can be classified according to one simple metric: Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.” Essentially: loose, or tight. Consider the prominent Muppets Bert and Ernie.

BERT: Ernie — Ernie, don’t eat those cookies while you’re in your bed, huh?

ERNIE: Why not, Bert?

BERT: Because: you get crumbs in the sheets, that’s why. And if there are crumbs in the sheets, they’ll get in your pajamas. And if you get crumbs in your pajamas, they’ll make you itch. 

ERNIE: Oh, gee. I don’t like to itch, Bert.

We should note that Bert and Ernie, despite their differences, are very dear friends! This suggests that looseness and tightness can co-exist. It suggests that — as in most things in life — balance is desirable.

GELFAND: I do work with the U.S. Navy and other organizations that are trying to have that kind of balance. Like, the military should be tighter than tech. Nevertheless, you might be able to intentionally create pockets of looseness so you can have more balance. That’s what we call tight-loose ambidexterity. 

DUBNER: What does an institution like the Navy see as the upsides of more looseness? 

GELFAND: Having more adaptability, more innovation. Innovation requires coming up with a lot of ideas. That is generated by looseness. We can think about extraordinarily loose contexts like Tesla or Uber that probably need a little more structure. You can think about it at the household level. Truth be told, I veer somewhat loose. My husband is an attorney. He veers tighter.

DUBNER: And how does that work out?

GELFAND: Well, it requires a lot of negotiation. He’s horrified by my dishwasher-loading behavior. I think that’s a good litmus test of tight-loose.

DUBNER: Oh, yeah. I’m with him. 

GELFAND: I also teach negotiation. And the whole point about negotiation is you figure out what is your highest priority in the situation, what domain is so important for you in terms of your tightness or your looseness, and then negotiate accordingly. We do this on vacations with my siblings. There’s a huge variation in how much spontaneity people like versus how much structure they want. And it drives us crazy.

DUBNER: And I’m guessing you’re the spontaneous type. 

GELFAND: Yeah, for the most part.

DUBNER: I find that people who don’t load dishwashers carefully are usually pretty loose with the planning. 

GELFAND: I’ll just say that there are also other contexts where we naturally tighten. When you have teenagers, you’re tight, at least for me. I’m like, “We’re going to go to Singapore if you people don’t behave.”

Coming up, how America’s creative looseness has produced a strange, global effect:

HENRICH: The scientific discipline of psychology is dominated by Americans. 

In the meantime, a bit more from the comedian Hannah Gadsby. She grew up in Tasmania.

GADSBY: Have you ever noticed how Americans are not stupid? I had been led to believe, by you, that you are as dumb as bricks. And then I meet you all, and then you’re not. I mean, you’ve got your quota, as have we all, but you’re not. Do you know what you are? You’re culturally confident. Good on you, I say. Good on you. And you know who else had that skill set? The ancient Romans. And things worked out well for them for a bit.

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The cross-cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand has been telling us about loose and tight cultures around the world. The U.S. is overall relatively loose. But there’s something else to be said about American culture. We are supremely WEIRD. Not just regular weird. We are acronymically WEIRD. Capital W-E-I-R-D, which stands for:

HENRICH: Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. 

In case you missed it, that’s Western. Educated. Industrialized. Rich. And democratic. And here’s one of the people who created the WEIRD designation.

HENRICH: I’m Joe Henrich. I’m a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University.

Henrich and a couple of colleagues came up with the WEIRD label when he was teaching at the University of British Columbia. He was a professor in both the economics and psychology departments, which was weird in its own way — lower-case weird — since Henrich had never taken a course in either subject. He started out as an anthropologist; but he started mixing and matching disciplines to suit his curiosity. Here’s how he describes himself these days.

HENRICH: I’m a researcher who tries to apply evolutionary theory to understand human behavior and human psychology and particularly culture. So how it is that we acquire ideas, beliefs, and values from other people, and how this has shaped human genetic evolution. And I’m particularly interested in how it’s shaped our psychology.

In 2016, Henrich published a book called The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. “Stripped of our culturally acquired mental skills,” he writes, “we are not so impressive when we go head-to-head in problem-solving tests against other apes, and we certainly are not impressive enough to account for the vast success of our species.” Henrich recently followed that book with another one called The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.

HENRICH: And the case I make is it’s been highly unsuccessful to just pick up institutions that evolved in Western societies and transport them to drop them in Africa or the Middle East or places like that, because there needs to be a fit between how people think about the world, their values, worldviews, motivations, and the affordances of the institution.

This is the flip side of the idea we started out with in this episode — that is, why it’s hard for the U.S. to simply import successful policies from elsewhere. Henrich is saying that the export of American ideas isn’t necessarily easier. If it were, Afghanistan and Venezuela, even Iran might be U.S.-style democracies by now. It’s hard in either direction not just because some cultures are tighter than others. Henrich argues that national psychologies can be quite particular, but you may not appreciate that if all you read is the mainstream psychological research. And that’s because the vast majority of the research subjects are WEIRD.

HENRICH: One study of the journals in social psychology shows that 96 percent of all subjects in social psychology come from societies that are Western educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. If you just look at Americans, it’s 70 percent American. So the scientific discipline of psychology is dominated by Americans. 

DUBNER: And why is that a problem? 

HENRICH: Because Americans and Westerners more generally are psychologically unusual from a global perspective. So if you only want to talk about American psychology, you’re fine. But if you want to talk about humans, Homo sapiens, then you have a generalization problem.

DUBNER: Can you give me a good example of an idea or a theory that I might come across in a Psych 101 textbook that would just be so American that it wouldn’t really be useful if you actually care about humans? 

HENRICH: This probably wouldn’t be in a psych textbook, but something like the Ultimatum game.

The Ultimatum game is famous among social scientists. It’s an experiment developed in the early 1980’s by, among others, the German economist Werner Güth . Here’s how it works.

HENRICH: Two players divide a sum of money. So, say it’s $100, and the first player can offer a portion of the $100 to a second player. So they might offer, say, 10 out of the 100. The second player is given a choice between accepting or rejecting.

The two players don’t know each other. They don’t even see each other — and this is a one-time interaction, so there won’t be another round of the game where the second player can punish or reward the first player.

HENRICH: If they accept the offer, they get the amount of the offer. So $10 in this case. If they reject, both players get zero. 

Okay, you get the gist, right? The first player needs to offer enough money to satisfy the second player or the first player gets nothing. If you’re an economist, you might think that offering even $1 out of the 100 would be enough. Because $1 is more than zero, so the second player would still be better off. But if you’re not an economist, if you’re a regular human being, you can see why the second player might reject a $1 offer. It is a small price to pay to punish the first player for being so stingy. So how much would you offer? That’s what the Ultimatum experiments set out to find. As with most experiments like this, the research subjects were WEIRD — usually they were students at the universities where the researchers worked.

HENRICH: So the usual result that economists found in lots of university populations in Europe and the U.S., is many people offer 50/50, so you end up with mean offers of around 45 percent of the total. And I was interested in this, and I thought maybe it would tell us something about an innate human psychology for reciprocity or something like that.

This is a pretty interesting result: one stranger giving away roughly half their money to another stranger when, theoretically, 10 or 20 percent would keep the second player from rejecting the offer. Some researchers looked at these results and came up with a new label for humans in this context: Homo reciprocans. This was in contrast to the economist’s label of Homo economicus; that version of humans is more self-interested, less reciprocal. But Joe Henrich wanted to see how the Ultimatum experiments worked when it wasn’t just a bunch of WEIRD college students.

HENRICH: I was doing research in the Peruvian Amazon. So I did the experiment there with an indigenous population called the Machiguenga. And the Machiguenga were much closer to the predictions of Homo economicus, where you’d make low offers and never reject. So, they would offer a mean of about 25, 26 percent. There were a number of low offers of 15 percent, which didn’t get rejected. And this led to this project where we did in lots of places — hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, Africa, Papua New Guinea. And we found the full spectrum of variation. Offers went up as high as 55 or 60 percent in some places and then down around 25 percent in other places.

DUBNER: I remember once, years and years ago, when I was reading this research that you were doing, speaking with Francisco Gil-White, who was then at Penn, and he told me that when he was running this Ultimatum experiment, I don’t remember where — I want to say Mongolia. 

HENRICH: Yeah, he was in Mongolia

DUBNER: But that the research subjects, they gave him a lot back and they thought it was going to him. And he said the reason was that he was a young postdoc, and he had holes in his jeans. And the research subject explained to him that, “Oh, I feel so bad for you that you can’t afford pants without holes in them that I can’t take the money from this poor American kid.” And it struck me as a way in which this experiment could be perverted.

HENRICH: So, Francisco is a good pal of mine and he’s also a very charming fellow. So I have no doubt that his subjects really liked him. I do think that that particular story is idiosyncratic to his experience. But we tried to address that. So after we ran that first project, we redid the entire project, and we took concerns like the one Francisco had. And we made sure that the subjects knew that the money was coming from an organization, that the giver did not get any of the money, we ratcheted up our levels of anonymity. We put in a bunch of other checks and controls.  

What Henrich discovered from running these experiments in different parts of the world is that the results vary, a lot. This suggests that every time a social scientist runs an experiment whose research subjects are WEIRD — that’s capital-letter WEIRD — the results of that experiment may be meaningful in the U.S. and some other places, but quite likely not in others. So, again, if you want to talk about Americans, you’re okay.

HENRICH: But if you want to talk about humans, then you have a problem.

This feeds back into what Michele Gelfand was talking about earlier, in the context of geopolitical negotiations.

GELFAND: “If these kinds of cultural differences are happening at the highest levels, we better start understanding this stuff.”  

So if you base your understanding of a given culture on a body of research that fails to include them, you’ll likely fail to understand how that culture thinks — whether we’re talking about another country or a group within your own country. This failure leads to confusion at the very least, but quite possibly deeper misunderstandings, perhaps all the way up to hatred and violent conflict. So, yeah, that is WEIRD. Joe Henrich’s research into national psychologies led him to an even more fascinating conclusion. This is where he combines all his academic interests: not just economics and psychology, but also anthropology and evolutionary biology. Remember what he said earlier:

HENRICH: So how it is that we acquire ideas, beliefs, and values from other people and how this has shaped human genetic evolution.

Really? Can that possibly be true — our culture shapes our genetics? Henrich says yes. Here’s how he puts it in his latest book: “You can’t separate ‘culture’ from ‘psychology’ or ‘psychology’ from ‘biology,’ because culture physically rewires our brains and thereby shapes how we think.” One example he gives is literacy. In “a society in which 95 percent of adults are highly literate,” he writes, people have a thicker corpus callosum than a society in which only 5 percent of people are highly literate.” The corpus callosum is the bunch of nerve fibers that unites the two brain hemispheres. People in the less-literate society, meanwhile, would have better facial-recognition skills. Here’s another example:

HENRICH: People from more individualistic societies tend to focus on central objects

Meaning, if you grew up in someplace like the U.S., when you look at an image you’re more likely to pay attention to what’s in the foreground, in the center. Someone raised in an Eastern culture might focus more on the image as a whole and less on the central object.

HENRICH: This cashes out in an ability to make better abstract or absolute judgment. So if you ask people to judge the absolute lengths of two lines, people in more individualistic societies tend to get that right. Whereas people from less individualistic societies tend to be better at making relative-size judgments.

Michele Gelfand has another example of how culture shapes perception. One of the areas of cultural study that first hooked her had to do with optical illusions.

GELFAND: Classic things like the Müller-Lyer Illusion, which is these two lines where one looks longer than the other.

DUBNER: These are the two lines that are the same. But one has arrows going out and one in?  

GELFAND: Exactly. And they were finding that people in Africa were not falling victim to this illusion. Part of it is that when you live in a world that has carpented environments like right angles, where we live in houses in the States makes us focus on those right angles. And it produces this illusion. I was floored. If basic things like visual illusions are not universal, what about other phenomena? 

Yes, other phenomena like how things smell to us. Joe Henrich again:

HENRICH: In some societies, people really attend to scent, and they have a complex set of language terms that have the equivalent of basic color categories for scents. They’re able to make finer distinctions in terms of their olfaction. Whereas we usually describe a scent by saying something that “it smells like.” 

There are also auditory differences.

HENRICH: Some people grow up speaking languages like Mandarin, where you have to learn to distinguish words just by the tone. And that’s going to cultivate certain tonal abilities, which could feed into certain kinds of music, and things like that.

Henrich’s next example is more behavioral than physiological. It has to do with conformity.           

HENRICH: There’s something called the Asch conformity test, where you have confederates of the experimenter give the same wrong answer to an objective problem. And then you see how often the subject wants to go along with the other people, as opposed to give the answer they would give if they were by themselves. 

When they’re by themselves, the vast majority of people who do this experiment get the right answer, like in this archival tape of an Asch conformity test.

SUBJECTS: Three. Three.

But then the experimenter’s confederates come in.

BROADCASTER: On the third trial, something happens.

SUBJECT 1: Two.

SUBJECT 2: Two.

SUBJECT 3: Two.

SUBJECT 4: Two.

SUBJECT 5: Uh… two.

BROADCASTER: The subject denies the evidence of his own eyes and yields to group influence.

When Americans did this experiment, a third of them conformed and gave an obviously wrong answer. The same experiment was done in other, non-WEIRD countries, like Ghana and Zimbabwe.

HENRICH: If you go to other societies, people are much more willing to give the same wrong answer to go along with others.

It turns out that Americans were among the least likely to conform. Relatedly: Americans place a high value on being consistent across different situations.

HENRICH: You want to be the same self, regardless of who you’re talking to or what context you’re in, whereas in other places it seems to be okay to morph and shift your personality, depending on your context.

So the picture that emerges from these findings is that Americans are less likely to conform in the name of social harmony; and we also treasure being consistent, expressing our true selves, regardless of the context. If you wanted to reduce this to a slogan of Americanism, it might be something like: “I am me, deal with it.” This fits quite snugly with the fact that the U.S. has been found to be the most individualistic culture in the world. We may not be the very loosest culture; but we are No. 1 in individualism.

HOFSTEDE: Which doesn’t mean egoism, but it could go that way. It means “I did it my way.”

This man has proof of our individualism. We met him earlier, but just briefly; here’s a proper introduction.

HOFSTEDE: My name is Gert Jan Hofstede. I’m a professor of artificial sociality at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. 

The study of culture is a family business for Hofstede. His late father was a social psychologist who devised a system to rank countries on several dimensions — including their level of individualism versus collectivism.

HOFSTEDE: In an individualistic society, a person is like an atom in a gas. They can freely float about. And life is an adventure. The best thing you can become is yourself. And in a collectivistic society, a person is like an atom in a crystal. Whether proud or not, whether happy or not, it has a position. And it should stay there.

We will leave you with a patriotic tribute from one last transplanted U.S. comedian.

OLIVER: When was that moment when America became the most American America it could possibly be?

That’s John Oliver. He grew up in England.

OLIVER: Baseballs were hit from the deck of a warship from a needlessly inflatable batting cage. Out into the ocean where they were caught by people on jet skis. That is not just the most American thing that’s ever happened. Those should be the new words to your national anthem. “Oh say, can you see, the home run I just hit…”

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Brent Katz. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowGreg RippinJoel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Mary Diduch, Zack Lapinski, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

  • Michele Gelfand, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park.
  • Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University.
  • Joe Henrich, professor and chair of evolutionary biology at Harvard University.
  • Gert Jan Hofstede, professor of artificial sociality at Wageningen University.

RESOURCES