Monday, July 12, 2010

Will the normal humans please stand up?

This is related to the previous posting about the rise of narcissism and selfishness in "Western Culture", and how for some reason, not many people notice it, or even care. (Compared to Asperger's Syndrome, which many parents seem to be absolutely terrified of.)

This is obviously problematic, because "Western Culture" is where most psychological research happens. And this research is used to measure what is considered "normal" or "healthy" psychological behaviour, as well as "universal" behaviours.

Westerners are abnormally egocentric, individualistic, isolated, and conformist, compared to other cultures presently in the world as well as in the past. And yet...

We consistently consider ourselves "normal", and immune to cultural biases in thinking and problem solving.

(Because we've somehow escaped this silly primitive culture nonsense, and now experience CIVILIZATION and RATIONAL BEHAVIOUR. Yes. That is sarcasm.)

If you don't believe me, read this review, titled "The Weirdest People in the World?" criticizing the use of western college students to create theories of "universal" human behaviour and cognition. The acronym WEIRD stands for "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic."

So yeah, what we consider normal, can also be called "weird", and as noted in the previous post, we seem to be getting "weirder" every decade.

Along with psychological views of the self and other, and the "cultural" aspects of an individuals identity- there is variations in spacial perception, social reasoning, memory, and susceptibility to optical illusions. Since I read psychology, I was aware of some of these differences, but was surprised to find that not all cultures viewed optical illusions the same way, because my cognitive psychology book told me it was one of those "universal" things.

The muller-Lyer optical illusion is the one shown here that tricks you into perceiving that these lines are different lengths, when in fact they are actually all the same length, as demonstrated below in red.
(But people on the autistic spectrum often don't perceive this. Because my consciousness is most often hyper-focused, I can go- yep same line...yep...same line. But if I look again, and focus on the whole for a little while, I can see the illusion.)

Americans, REALLY SUCK AT THIS. They get fooled easily, compared to most other cultures. Some cultures are less easily fooled, and it seems the San bushpeople of the Kalahari, like autistic spectrum folk, aren't fooled at all and can easily tell the lines are the same. (Maybe because in order to eat, and not BE EATEN, they are raised with a high attention to detail).

So does that mean the optical illusion is universal, EXCEPT for those hunter-gatherers, (who live the lifestyle of 99% of humans that have ever existed), that have the "wrong" kind of perception?

No. You can't call things Universal, and choose which cultures belong in the Universal box, and which ones belong in the Deviation box.

Some people read stuff like this and jump to the ridiculous conclusion of extreme cultural relativity: "See! There is no human nature! It's ALL culture!"- or to the other extreme end that maybe "GENES are responsible for these perceptual and cognitive differences!"- as if actually choosing teams in the epic "Nature vs. Nurture" battle.

But in my opinion, there is no battle. A battle implies that one of them could win. I think it's more like a game of "tug-of-war" that never ends. Team Culture has much more manpower, and when Team Culture tugs hard enough, it pulls Team Genes towards its side, so that Team Genes almost touches that "thin red line". But Team Culture is never strong enough to completely pull Team Genes over and win the game. Sometimes Team Culture becomes exhausted and collapses on the ground, and Team Genes takes over and slides Team Culture through the mud and back to the other side. But you can't saying something is "just genes", separate from culture. (Like some recent crap news about how some men are "born to cheat" because they have a "cheating gene".)

Team culture can be a lot of things. Humans have produced Natzi culture, Tibetan Monk culture, and more recently, Gangster culture.

But culture is not infinitely malleable. I'm guessing there will never be a culture where people produce babies only to eat them as as Jonathan Swift suggested, (sacrafice and religion is different), or one in which Amazonian women keep their multiple husbands in cages.

But one in which uneducated, unattractive, drug addicted, misogynistic, badly dressed thugs who can't even sing or play an instrument produce an award winning record that millions of people buy: possible.

We are very cultural beings, with "cultural software" in our minds.
My point is: You can't say with certainty which kind of human behaviour is "universal", and which kind is not. You can only say that we have biases, and tendencies, and make some guesses. Culture is strong enough to warp these tendencies. For example, facial expressions are "Universal", but Westerners and Asians produce and view facial expressions slightly differently.

But I do think there is definitely something called "human nature"- only it can be stretched and distorted. You can't figure out exactly what that is by studying ONE culture, and ONE time period, and ONE species, and ONE type of people.

You also can't go around the world playing behavioural economic games with different cultures and expect that to "prove" some kind of "truth" about modern society, and claim that capitalism and markets make us "kinder". The study went through the news and and spawned a lot of dumbass articles suddenly concluding "See! Look how awesome our society is! We're not selfish! Without capitalism and religion, we would be stealing and spearing each other! Actually, it's the bushpeople who are selfish jerks!"

Look at those selfish jerks.


The kindest people in the whole world, and the entire existence of humanity.

The paper is interesting, but I think that "news article" is one dumbass conclusion from that paper. Of course hunter-gatherers are not peaceful, earth loving, pure beings. (Apparently the murder rate is the same as other cultures, when you factor in the amount of people in groups). But just because they played the ultimatum game in a certain way, certainly doesn't make them "unkind" to strangers. I mean, they work together and share their meat, and actually agreed to help anthropologists with these studies. Wouldn't the unkind reaction to be to tell them to fuck off? And in their own group, they are very generous, and "kind" every day. When was the last time you popped over to your neighbours house to offer them free groceries for no reason? Of course they are going to think differently, and will consider it "strange" to give stuff to complete strangers they will never see again. That would be like an alien landing in your backyard from a spaceship, and asking for half your paycheck. You'd probably be very suspicious, offer a small amount, and probably phone a psychiatrist. You can't make sweeping generalizations like that about the personalities of other cultures, let alone cultures in the past, unless you have psychic powers and a time machine. "Tribal" groups don't exist in isolation, in some kind of representation of the thinking process of our ancestors. They don't have any reason to trust "random white people" or take their experiments seriously, either. But maybe when there were no random white people bothering them 5,000 years ago, they would have thought differently, who knows.

Humans have hardwired "stranger danger". That's one of those "pretty much" universal things, but culture determines how paranoid the group is to outsiders. They avoid dealing with strangers in the out-group, and think very differently about them. We didn't hang out with random strangers all the time in our past. The "other" is a strong repelling force. Our society, and other industrialized societies, only seem "kinder" because we live in a big, massive "US" group, called a country, and we have certain expectations in dealing with strangers, because we do it every day, and act like we belong in ONE GIANT TRIBE culture. We don't really encounter "strangers" very often. Fellow citizens are not strangers, they are fellow citizens we identify with. We are obsessed with our reputations, and don't want to look like "jerks", even if only God is watching. We are used to playing hypothetical intellectual games. Tribal people don't sit around doing that. We use the strategy that we think is "right", that gives us a feelgood emotional reaction (Not an intellectual one). That feelgood feeling doesn't happen with people very different from us that we can't possibly identify with. This has absolutely nothing to do with kindness, having a "world religion", or free markets evolving us into more co-operative people. Because that insinuates that if these aspects are taken away, people will just start to rape and pillage freely. (If that was really true, would that mean that a hypothetical society made up of socialist atheists, like on Star Trek, would all act like misanthropic criminals?) If you take a bunch of American strangers and dump them on a deserted island with "others"- people aren't so "kind" anymore. Just like tribe-people suspicious of outsiders, if you tell Americans they are playing the game with a Muslim from Afghanistan, many people won't want to be very generous, like they are when they think they are playing with Americans. It depends on the situation. In real life, people are becoming LESS kind, and LESS generous, in real life situations, and certainly LESS "FAIR". Markets and monotheistic religions create "very large tribes", not kindness and fairness.

So, people in smaller scale societies don't punish strangers, and that's considered a bad thing? But if a strange looking alien came to your door with a giant chunk of diamond and offered to give you 10% of it, would you go "Fuck you Alien! That's really unfair, so not only am I going to reject your offering, I'm going to tell your Alien boss that you're a jerk so he takes the diamond away from you, and we both get nothing!" That doesn't really prove you live in a kind society, just that you live in a society obsessed with "justice" and punishing others for perceived injustices.

That viewpoint also bugged me because, using that reasoning, you could say that people on the autistic spectrum are also "unkind" because they do not  punish people in the Ultimatum game. When I first encountered that, I was somewhat confused as to why someone would REJECT ANYTHING. I remember reading Temple Grandin picked the "rational option", and in general autistic people were more likely to do that (and psychopaths, because they are selfish jerks). Because in my mind, my thought process was narrowed down to: "Hmm...Something...or...Nothing. Of course I'll pick the something, even if it's 1%! Something is better than NOTHING". I would also have the thought when someone kept 99% -"fuck you, jerk!" but there was no emotional benefit for me to punish myself by punishing another person I will "never meet again". They were two separate thoughts. I was completely astounded that "normal" people reject free money and punish themselves, in order to punish the bad behaviour of other people they don't know and will never meet. For some reason that makes them feel better, but so does co-operating. When this game is done in an fMRI, apparently "pleasure centres" light up. So, I guess that makes me an "unkind person" because I don't enjoy punishing people.

All this research on human behaviour and culture is interesting and useful, but not when you claim confusing things like "capitalism makes us kind" in the newspaper.

The understanding of what is "normal", and what is "not normal", is important when scientist types are doing research on autistic spectrum disorders. Most often, the studies compare autistic spectrum people with WEIRD people.  But that doesn't necessarily tell you what differences there are between "normal people" and "autistic people", because autistic people are not exposed to culture in the same way. They don't "soak up" the cultural mind. Every autistic person has a slightly different mind. A difference in cognition might not be because of "Autism", but it might be because they don't exist in the same cultural universe as the rest of the population, just like someone who was raised in a crazy cult- except it is a "culture of one".

And, in studies on autistic people, deviations from the "normal population" are almost always framed negatively. For example, here is a study about the lack of a self reference effect in autism (meaning "normal people" have better memory for words and subjects relating to themselves, and special brain areas light up when exposed to information about themselves), which is called; A lack of self-consciousness in Autism. This study finds that autistic people treat all information the same, whether it is relevant to the self or not- and consider that proof of a "lack of self-consciousness." They could have also called it "Autistic people do not have a bias for information related to the self." But hey, favouring information about yourself and distorting your thought processes to notice more things about yourself, is the normal thing to do.

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