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I'm WEIRD

A recent New Scientist article by Laura Spinney (16 November 2010) says that the chances are that, as a reader of the magazine, I am "western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic, aka WEIRD." In this respect it appears, I am in a minority: seven out of ten of the world's population think differently. Analytic thinking, psychological research suggests, is a minority pursuit.

The serious message for psychologists is that they need to expand their subject pool before they start drawing conclusions about human psychology, or else restrict those conclusions to the subpopulation whose members they have recruited for their study. As for you, the next time you watch a documentary about the San people or Amazonian foragers, try to remember that you're the exotic one.

I don't find this idea surprising, because I've often thought something of the kind, but I do find it disturbing. This way of thinking became dominant in the West as a result of the Enlightenment movement and it is probably essential for science to work. It also underpins the rejection of religion, which, again, is an unusual feature of modern life, at least in Western Europe.

An important difference between WEIRD individuals and those in other societies is how they think about individuality. Westerners typically attach a lot of importance to individual autonomy, whereas people in east Asia seem to think of themselves more as members of a community. I certainly recognise this trait in myself. For example, I have little interest in any team games, whereas I enjoy watching tennis and boxing.

The article seems to assume that these differences are culturally determined; "all humans have the same kind of brain." But do they? in What's New? Matthew D. Lieberman has an interesting discussion of why certain ideas, such as mind-body dualism, seem to be so deeply ingrained in our consciousness. He suggests that the answer may be found in Terrence Deacon's important hypothesis about the way languages are transmitted. Deacon believes they have evolved to be easily grasped by the human brain, especially the brains of children. In the same way, Lieberman suggests, "Big Ideas" correspond to brain structure and function and evolve over time to fit even better.

Lieberman goes on to show that there may be genetic differences between East and West in the way such ideas are taken up by the brain. Eastern cultures tend to favour ideas of the interrelatedness of individuals in society, whereas the West inclines more towards individualism. This difference may not be purely cultural in origin but may be connected with genetic differences in the regulatory portion of the serotonin transporter gene. People in the East tend to have a version of the gene that makes them more dependent on a social framework of mental health; if the framework is lacking they become depressed. Westerners, in contrast, mostly have a different genetic make-up which renders them less dependent on social and family support. Lieberman concludes that differences of this kind may help to account for differences in religion.

I can't escape from the way I see the world and I don't want to. I'm a passionate advocate of the values of the Enlightenment. But I am willing to admit that I'm in a minority, and I also think that even in the West we are witnessing a reaction against those values. They are not guaranteed to endure for all time.

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