Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nature vs. Nurture vs. X: Psychology and Cognitive Variation By Culture

This (via ALD) is kind of interesting, though, I'd say, rather overblown.

So, you know the story: now Henrich et al. say that Americans are unrepresentative psychologically because we are "WEIRD"--Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. A little too cutesy and self-consciously iconoclastic for my taste...but there's still interesting stuff in there.

The claims seem overblown to me on several fronts. First, they make a lot of the fact that Americans tend to have idiosyncratic reactions to the ultimatum game in which player A is given n dollars, and can share any part of it with player B. If B refuses, neither gets anything. Americans tend, when playing B, to refuse amounts that deviate from an even split of the money. Other people, e.g. the Machiguenga of the Amazon, tend to accept any amount. WHOA! THAT'S...not very interesting at all actually... There's nothing obviously rational nor natural about our reaction on that test. It's understandable...but, so far as I know, no one has ever thought that it was obligatory to react in that way. One would also predict that the more significant the amount of money being offered, and the more tenuous the circumstances of the players, the less likely they'd be to turn down less-than-equal shares. (As one commenter notes, if you are given a million dollars in the game, and offer me $50k, I'm unlikely to turn it down. My principles only go so far...I want the cash if it's over about a hundred bucks...)

Some hunter-gatherers are harder to trick with the Muller-Lyer illusion--and good for them. Such spatial tasks are probably more important to them in general, and it wouldn't be all that surprising if they are better at it than us. We'd also need to know whether they use arrows symbolically in the way that we do, as that might matter. We perform better on the Asch conformity experiments...though those typically don't actually test cognition nor judgment, since the subjects report their responses out loud; so they test what people say, not what they think. That is, they test the effects of peer pressure on overt behavior, not judgment. (Someone must have done some in which the reports are secret...right?)

But, anyway.

Here's the deal. Such discussions always seem confused to me because they--like so many other discussions--operate in light of a false dichotomy. The implicit question is: nature or nurture? But those aren't the only two forces acting on us. First and most obviously, there is personal experience. But, second, there's reason. We're each endowed with a brain; but the brain is largely (though not entirely, by any means) a generic computing device. It doesn't fully determine what we'll think any more than the architecture of a computer determines what functions it will compute. That generic device gets some inputs. Many are from experience, and many are from culture--though culture is really just one very important form of experience. Culture passes on to us what are, in effect, many tacit suggestions about how to do things, and we absorb many of them. We also reject many of them, improve many of them, and screw some of them up. But nature and nurture alone simply don't seem to account for all human cognition and action. We also seem to be autonomous beings capable of independent, creative thought. (If we're computers at all, we seem to be partially self-programming ones.) Not terribly independent, nor terribly creative in most cases--but at least somewhat so in a non-trivial number of cases and respects.

Now, of course, the contemporary middle-high-brow orthodoxy scoffs at such things, and asserts without proof that creativity and autonomy can be explained in terms of nature or nurture. But that is speculation based on faith in a theory, not a conclusion warranted by the available evidence. We might some day be warranted in concluding that we're squishy robots programmed by "culture"--doing the monkey-see-monkey-do thing with respect to the activity of other squishy robots. But we're not warranted in believing that now. When we think about things, reason sometimes leads us to conclusions that are not determined by our wetware, and not determined by anything cultural. Neither Godel's nature nor his nurture determined that he would conclude that the incompleteness result was provable. Reason led him there largely as a consequence of his diligent effort. Neither your nature nor your nurture forces you to see that Modus Tollens (if p then q, not-q, therefore not-p) is valid. In fact, many people don't see it. Anyone who has thought through complicated problems has had the experience of being led along by reason--by the force of reasons that, so far as we can tell, exert some real influence on the inquiring mind. It's foolish to try to generate a view of human cognition that ignores this most central rational phenomenon, or that simply assumes that it can be reduced to the brute, causal action of biology or culture. Psychology is great for exposing our cognitive quirks. But just because our quirky reactions to the ultimatum game differ from other people's quirky reactions to it...well, it's easy to leap to the conclusion that that tells us more than it really does.

Not that that's overtly done in the article at hand...  But the view always seems to me to be floating around in the background.


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