Thursday, December 2, 2010

Are Australians the WEIRDest people?

You often see the strangest things in public printers. Today I was visiting the chemistry department at Berkeley and while waiting for a colleague in a meeting room I noticed someone had printed a paper, The Weirdest People in the World? from the Journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, so I quickly skimmed it. Here are a few intriguing observations.

Henrich, Heiner, and Norenzayan [from the Psychology Department at University of British Columbia], the authors of the paper, define WEIRD as Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. Their main point is that most "standard subjects" in studies of human psychology and behaviour are actually USA undergraduate students who are not only WEIRD but actually not representative of humanity in general! One example is the following.

A 2002 paper in the journal Nature, Altruistic Punishment in Humans, claimed to resolve the puzzle, Why are humans often altruistic when there is no evolutionary advantage? The Swiss authors found that there was a strong tendency for subjects (all WEIRD) to be willing to spend some of their own resources to punish fellow members of society who were "free loaders" who were not altruistic. In particular they claimed to show that "cooperation flourishes if altruistic punishment is possible, and breaks down if it is ruled out. "
However, Henrich et al., discuss a 2008 paper in the journal Science, by Hermann et al. Antisocial punishment across societies which contains the fascinating graphic below. One of the main findings of this study was that the extent of punishment of anti-social behaviour varied significantly between societies, even to the extent that some societies actually tended to punish altruism. But, what got my attention was that Australians showed the strongest tendency to punish free loaders!

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