Does “American” = Human Nature?

PhrenologyOh the dirty secrets of academic research….

Remember those classic “human nature” thought experiments like the Prisoner’s Dilemma? It turns out that the “humans” they’re drawing these conclusions from are, overwhelmingly and unapologetically, humans-of-the-American-persuasion. But does American = human nature?

Take a classic ultimatum game: One player is gifted $100 with one condition: He or she has to offer some of it to an anonymous second player. Player 1 can choose any amount to give, but the second player knows there is $100 to split, and can either a) accept whatever split is offered, or b) refuse any “unfair” split, meaning they both walk away with nothing. These studies commonly find, when player 2s are offered less than a 50/50 split, that they are eager to “punish” this anonymous usurer, even if it means neither of them get anything.

See? 50/50 fairness and a drive to punish those who are unfair are universal characteristics hardwired into our human nature. 

But what if someone tried this in a different cultural context? Ethan Watters of Pacific Standard Magazine, outlined the work of psychologist Joe Henrich, who did just that: Heinrich conducted a similar ultimatum game
with the Machiguenga of Peru and observed vastly different results — almost no refusals occurred no matter what deal was offered:

Rich_Businessman_by_paulh18“It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money…. They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”

Watters used this example to highlight a common characteristic of social science research: assuming that the traits of one Continue reading

When Kids’ Language Mistakes Make Sense

Toddler “Mommy – he hitted me!”

We once thought kids learned language by mimicking their parents (think B.F. Skinner and all that “tabula rasa/blank slate waiting to be filled” business). But then researchers (e.g. Pre-political-activist Noam Chomsky) started to look at kids’ “errors,” like the one above, and realized this didn’t tell the whole story….

In the sentence above, the child has never actually heard the word “hitted” from her parents or anyone else. Instead, she’s taking a rule she knows – that we put an “ed” at the end of past-tense words – and applying it to a new situation. In this case, since English is crazy and “hit” is an irregular verb, we’d call her sentence a “mistake” or, in linguistics, an “overgeneralization.” The point is, the kid is doing more than mimicking language here, she’s creating it herself. 

What’s even more amazing is that, in all likelihood, no one has ever sitted (I had to) down with her and explicitly explained the “ed” rule – she figured it out on her own. This is the part where you Continue reading