In We Aren’t the World, Ethan Watters explores how profoundly culture affects thinking. One of the central points is that Western, and he suggests particularly American, minds, are much more likely to see things from an individualist, and reductionist perspective. He points out the vast majority of psychology studies are based on “WEIRD” people, in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries. Turns out that the rest of the world doesn’t think the same ways.
Here’s his conclusion; the whole thing is worth reading.
And here is the rub: the culturally shaped analytic/individualistic mind-sets may partly explain why Western researchers have so dramatically failed to take into account the interplay between culture and cognition. In the end, the goal of boiling down human psychology to hardwiring is not surprising given the type of mind that has been designing the studies. Taking an object (in this case the human mind) out of its context is, after all, what distinguishes the analytic reasoning style prevalent in the West. Similarly, we may have underestimated the impact of culture because the very ideas of being subject to the will of larger historical currents and of unconsciously mimicking the cognition of those around us challenges our Western conception of the self as independent and self-determined. The historical missteps of Western researchers, in other words, have been the predictable consequences of the WEIRD mind doing the thinking.
Thanks to Lee Bryant for pointing to this on Facebook.