The WEIRD Phenomenon

Most of us are familiar with the Muller-Lyer optical illusion above, named after its creator, German psychologist Franz Carl Müller-Lyer.

Like most optical illusions, it is designed to test basic brain and visual functions, helping us learn how and why human senses, cognition, etc. work the way they do. Many folks think the second line is longer than the first, even though both are the same, which purportedly shows that humans are susceptible to certain visual guides like arrows (though explanations for why this happens vary).

But the results do not tell the whole story: while many Westerners fall for this illusion (myself included), a study of 14 indigenous cultures found that none were tricked to the same degree. In fact, some cultures, like the San people of the Kalahari Desert, knew the two lines were equal length.

That’s because most studies claiming to reflect universal traits of human psychology and physiology only do so for a small and specific demographic—people from “WEIRD” societies, or Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic—which represent a tiny minority of all humans (about 12 percent).

The “WEIRD” phenomenon was first described in a 2010 paper from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, which found that 96 percent of studies in economics, psychology, and cognitive science—such as the ones on optical illusions—were performed on people with European backgrounds. A sample of hundreds of studies in leading psychology journals found close to 70 percent of subjects were from the U.S., and of these, 67 percent were undergraduates studying psychology (which further slants studies to reflect one particular age group).

All this means that a randomly selected American undergraduate is 4,000 times likelier to be a subject in a psych study—and thus reflect all of human nature—than a random non-Westerner.

Yet when scientists perform some of these experiments in other cultures, the results are very different—not just for optical illusions, but for things as diverse as moral reasoning, notions of fairness, and sexual behavior. Even mental disorders seem to manifest differently across cultures and ethnic groups: one small study found that people with schizophrenia in India and Ghana hear friendlier voices than their counterparts in the U.S., suggesting that culture and environment may play a role. (This may account for why Westerners have a harder time with the Muller-Lyer optical illusion than some indigenous people: Most Americans are raised in urban environments where horizontal lines and sharp corners are ubiquitous; this presumably influences us into making optical calibrations that can potentially misfire, which forager societies like the San do not have to worry about.)

In fact, people from WEIRD societies like the U.S. appear to be outliers among humans, with the authors of the UBC concluding that Westerners “are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans”.

As an writer for NPR blithely noted, “It was not so much that the emperor of psychology had no clothes. It was more that he was dancing around in Western garb pretending to represent all humanity”.

Fortunately, researchers have wizened to these biases over the past decade, carefully adding qualifiers and caveats such as “in college populations” or “in Western society.” But its still easy for journalists, analysts, and casual readers like ourselves to read the findings of these studies and ascribe them to all of humanity. Much of human nature, like humans themselves, is a lot more complicated and multi-variable than WEIRD folks suggest.

Mayan Supermoms

Like most aspiring parents, I think a lot about how I will raise my children. Obviously, I am not alone in these concerns, since raising another human being is one of the most consequential things one can do.

That is why parenting advice is a dime a dozen, and why there has been so much interest and discussion around parenting styles from Asia or France. People everywhere share the same understandable need to learn the best way to shape their children in ways that will help them flourish.

One approach that has received far less attention is Mayan parenting, which challenges many of the assumptions that underpin parenting across the world. NPR has a great piece about it, and I recommend reading the whole thing. Here are some choice excerpts highlighting the life and philosophies of a Mayan mom:

Burgos is constantly on parental duty. She often tosses off little warnings about safety: “Watch out for the fire” or “Don’t play around the construction area.” But her tone is calm. Her body is relaxed. There’s no sense of urgency or anxiety.

In return, the children offer minimal resistance to their mother’s advice. There’s little whining, little crying and basically no yelling or bickering.

In general, Burgos makes the whole parenting thing look — dare, I say it — easy. So I ask her: “Do you think that being a mom is stressful?”

Burgos looks at me as if I’m from Mars. “Stressful? What do you mean by stressful?” she responds through a Mayan interpreter.

A five-minute conversation ensues between Burgos and the interpreter, trying to convey the idea of “stressful.” There doesn’t seem to be a straight-up Mayan term, at least not pertaining to motherhood.

But finally, after much debate, the translator seems to have found a way to explain what I mean, and Burgos answers.

“There are times that I worry about my children, like when my son was 12 and only wanted to be with his friends and not study,” Burgos says. “I was worried about his future.” But once she guided him back on track, the worry went away.

In general, she shows no sense of chronic worry or stress.

“I know that raising kids is slow,” she says. “Little by little they will learn.”

I would love to channel that delicate balance of stoicism and paternalism, somewhere between “helicopter” and “free-range” parenting.

Families In A Maya Village In Mexico May Have The Secret To Getting Kids To  Do Chores : Goats and Soda : NPR
Credit: Adriana Zehbrauskas / NPR

As it turns out, the Mayan approach reflects a fundamentally different paradigm to parenting. Whereas most Western cultures frame parenting as a matter of control—be it less or more, or over some things but not others—the Maya do not even have a word for control as it relates to children.

“We think of obedience from a control angle. Somebody is in charge and the other one is doing what they are told because they have to,” says Barbara Rogoff, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied the Maya culture for 30 years.

And if you pay attention to the way parents interact with children in our society, the idea is blazingly obvious. We tend to boss them around. “Put your shoes on!” or “Eat your sandwich!”

“People think either the adult is in control or the child is in control,” Rogoff says.

But what if there is another way to interact with kids that removes control from the equation, almost altogether?

That’s exactly what the Maya — and several other indigenous cultures — do. Instead of trying to control children, Rogoff says, parents aim to collaborate with them.

“It’s kids and adults together accomplishing a common goal,” Rogoff says. “It’s not letting the kids do whatever they wantIt’s a matter of children — and parents — being willing to be guided.”

In the Maya culture, even the littlest of children are treated with this respect. “It’s collaborative from the get-go.”

No doubt this collaborative and egalitarian approach would be alien to most American parents (among others I’m sure). So would the Mayan idea of what is called “alloparenting”:

Human children didn’t evolve in a nuclear family. Instead, for hundreds of thousands of years, kids have been brought up with a slew of people — grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, the neighbors, Lancy writes. It’s not that you need a whole village, as the saying goes, but rather an extended family — which could include biological relatives but also neighbors, close friends or paid help.

Throughout human history, motherhood has been seen as a set of tasks that can be accomplished by many types of people, like relatives and neighbors, the historian John R. Gillis writes in The World Of Their Own Making. Anthropologists call them “alloparents” — “allo” simply means “other.”

Across the globe, cultures consider alloparents key to raising children, Lancy writes.

The Maya moms value and embrace alloparents. Their homes are porous structures and all sorts of “allomoms” flow in and out. When a woman has a baby, other mothers work together to make sure she can take a break each day to take a shower and eat meals, without having to hold the baby. (How civilized is that!)

In one household with four kids that I visited, the aunt dropped off food, the grandma stopped by to help with a neighbor’s baby and, all the while, the oldest daughter looked after the toddler — while the mom fed the livestock and started to make lunch. But in Western culture, over the past few centuries, we have pushed alloparents to the periphery of the parenting landscape, Gillis writes. They aren’t as valued and sometimes even denigrated as a means for working mothers to outsource parenting duties.

It is a stark contrast to the stereotypical—and still widespread—notion of the “mom in a box”: A mother stuck at home with the kids and responsible for virtually every domestic task in addition to nearly all parental duties. Learning on dads, relatives, or close friends is more common—if only by necessity—but is still treated as a last resort or otherwise unusual.

The Parent of All Virtues

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero observed that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Acknowledging every good thing in our lives, no matter how brief or small, at all times, helps fuel kindness, benevolence, and other positive traits. Numerous schools of thoughts, as well as every major religion, have affirmed the importance of gratitude to both individual and societal well-being. I can attest to the importance of gratitude for my own mental and emotional health, but fortunately there is lots of evidence to back it up, too.

In light of the universal importance of gratitude, psychologists and social scientists have increasingly focused their attention on exploring the benefits of gratitude. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between gratitude and increased well-being—not only for the individual exercising gratitude, but for their recipients and even third parties. Continue reading

One Death v. One Million

Any reporter who has covered a humanitarian disaster should understand what Stalin is once reported to have said to a fellow Soviet official: The death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of one million is a statistic. [Note this account is most likely apocryphal.]

This is why news coverage of a famine or a flood will often highlight the story of one victim.

Or why, say, Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, galvanized global attention to the larger refugee crisis.

It is not easy to wrap one’s mind around thousands of deaths. It becomes an abstraction of geopolitics, economics, conflict dynamics — of statistics.

But a single death can be understood in the more relatable terms of, say, a grieving father or a desperate spouse. Or a murdered journalist, like Mr. Khashoggi.

Psychologists have repeatedly found that people experience a greater emotional reaction to one death than to many, even if the circumstances are identical. Perversely, the more victims, the less sympathy that people feel.

The effect even has a name: collapse of compassion. It’s not that we can’t care about a million deaths, psychologists believe. Rather, we fear being overwhelmed and switch off our own emotions in preemptive self-defense.”

— Max Fisher, “How One Journalist’s Death Provoked a Backlash That Thousands Dead in Yemen Did Not“, New York Times

The World’s Most Empathetic Societies

Empathy, which is broadly defined as the ability to feel or understand another person’s experience or perspective, is considered by many to be a foundational part of morality and ethics. But putting oneself in another’s position, and relating with their pain, joy, beliefs, and other mental and emotional states, one can better learn how to treat others and what constitutes positive or negative behavior.

It can thus be reasoned that individuals with a high level of empathy will most likely be kinder, more understanding, and more cooperative with others; a society composed of mostly empathetic people should similarly see higher rate of pro-social activities and values, such as more charitable giving or less crime. But only very recently has a study been done to measure which societies have the most empathy, and how or if that translates to greater societal health. Continue reading

Trauma Can Run In Our DNA

It is not surprising that the impact of trauma often transcends generations; after all, the psychological and behavioral consequences can easily rub off on one’s children. But a recent finding from New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital strongly suggests that trauma is not just socially conditioned, but genetically inheritable.

As the Guardian reports, the study analyzed the genes of children born to Jewish men and women who, in some way or another, had suffered during the Second World War (as camp internees, torture victims, being on the run, etc.). The offspring of these survivors were already known to have an increase chance of stress disorders, and sure enough, results showed that the region of a gene linked to stress was altered in a way not seen in the control group. (The research team confirmed that the changes were not due to any trauma experienced by the children themselves.) Continue reading

The Importance of Gratitude

Though feelings of gratitude should be a regular activity, one might as well take advantage of the spotlight offered by Thanksgiving to reflect deeply on both what we are grateful for, and why gratefulness itself is so important.

The Greater Good Science Center, based in the University of Berkeley, California, unveils the social, psychological, and even physical benefits of practicing gratitude, as told by a leading expert on the subject, Robert Emmons.

The social benefits are especially significant here because, after all, gratitude is a social emotion. I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.

Indeed, this cuts to very heart of my definition of gratitude, which has two components. First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.

The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.

Emmons’ research on the power of regular thankfulness has gleaned four “transformative” effects: Continue reading

Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge About “The Self”

Even as an atheist, I have always found Buddhism – with its almost uniquely nontheistic orientation, its relatively pragmatic doctrines, and its philosophical principles — to be fairly palatable as far as religions go.

A recent study reported in Quartz confirms this sentiment by demonstrating that Buddhist teachings about the self — our concept of who we are — meshes remarkably well with the latest findings in neuroscience. Continue reading

How Visible Inequality Erodes Communities

Poverty and inequality are bad enough on their own, but a recent Yale study published in Nature suggests that the mere visibility of income disparity can be socially and psychologically disruptive. As The Atlantic reported:

“Making wealth visible was a very corrosive force. It resulted in the rich exploiting the poor”, said Nicholas A. Christakis, the co-director of Yale Institute for Network Science and one of the senior authors of the study. When wealthy people find out that their neighbors don’t have the resources they do, researchers find, they’re less likely to help them, or anyone else …

… Researchers found that when rich subjects knew that their neighbors were less wealthy than they were, they became less likely to cooperate with them. The poor, however, chose to keep cooperating. This leads to what researchers call an exploitation scenario, in which the poor keep lowering their own wealth to invest in their local network, “making them worse off relative to their neighbors and allowing the rich to get richer”, the researchers write.

When rich subjects don’t know the wealth of their neighbors, though, they are more likely to cooperate than are poorer subjects. This leads to what researchers call a “fairness” scenario, in which the rich invest their wealth into a local network, which then grows richer as a whole.

Overall, visible poverty reduces overall cooperation, interconnectedness, and wealth. But inequality itself has “relatively little” impact on cooperation or interconnectedness. “Most people thinking about inequality today may be confusing two distinct phenomenon”, Christakis told me.

This might explain why famously egalitarian societies like Sweden and Japan tend to report higher than normal levels of social cohesion: not only is income broadly distributed, but any disparity that exists is plastered over through public policy and communitarian values. Broad access to education, healthcare, and quality housing means that the material markers of poverty are absent. There are also cultural taboos against the ostentatious displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption that are common in the U.S. and elsewhere. No doubt these factors make cooperation and social trust a lot easier, as people do not feel worlds apart despite what their actual incomes and lifestyles might be. Continue reading

How Doodling Helps The Brain

From The Atlantic:

For most people, the big question isn’t “when did you start drawing?” but “when did you stop drawing?” Virtually everyone drew and doodled at one point in their lives. For artists and non-artists alike, drawing is about more than art—it’s about the very art of thinking…

…”Drawing with pencil, pen, or brush on paper isn’t just for artists. For anyone who actively exercises the brain, doodling and drawing are ideal for making ideas tangible. What’s more, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, doodlers find it easier to recall dull information (even 29 percent more) than non-doodlers, because the latter are more likely to daydream.

While drawing is definitely the artist’s stock and trade, everyone can make doodles, bypassing the kind of refinement demanded of the artist. Drawing, even in a primitive way, often triggers insights and discoveries that aren’t possible through words alone. Just think of all those napkins (or Post-Its) on which million-dollar ideas were sketched out.”

As a frequent doodler myself, I never really considered any palpable mental and emotional benefits. But in retrospect, there was something relaxing and self-affirming about it — hence why so many people, myself included, tend to doodle during times of boredom.

What are your thoughts and experiences?