The Implications of Being WEIRD

The “ultimatum game” involves two players who remain anonymous to each other. One is given a relatively substantial amount of money—for example, $100 or even the equivalent of a few days’ wages—and told he or she must offer part of the money to the other player. The catch is this: each of the players know that if the second player refuses the deal, both will walk away empty-handed.

What’s your play?

The question is even more interesting given that research focusing on the results of this game across different cultures has made a major impact in the social sciences, a situation chronicled in Ethan Watters’ recent article entitled “We Aren’t the World.”

Joe Henrich of the University of British Columbia initially thought his research would confirm an idea that has long been foundational to fields like psychology and economics: that human beings all share the same basic psychological traits. What he found, however, was something quite different. North Americans tended to offer 50-50 splits and were willing to punish players who didn’t. The Machiguenga of Peru, by contrast, almost always accepted even very low amounts. And players from cultures where gift giving is commonly used to cultivate favor or allegiance regularly offered—and refused—generous amounts.  

What seems clear from these and other research results is that culture, not just biological hardwiring, has a significant role in shaping how each of us thinks. Not only so, but Henrich and fellow researchers Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan maintain that one population consistently rates as unusual compared to others: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or “WEIRD” for short. And among this group, they describe Americans specifically as “outliers among outliers.”

Watter’s entire article is fascinating and worth thinking through from a Christian perspective for a number of reasons. Here are just three of the major implications:

1. The culture in which we live is capable of exercising a pervasive influence on us, even if we don’t realize it.

As C. S. Lewis once remarked: “Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions” (“On the Reading of Old Books”).

You and I, whether we realize it or not, are heavily influenced by a “great mass of common assumptions” within our culture. The impact may be alternatively positive or negative. But rest assured, it’s there.

2. Just because our culture considers something to be good (or bad) doesn’t mean it is.

This follows from the first point. Widespread cultural acceptance or approval can be a sign that a given value or action is a good thing. People are, after all, made in the image of God. This means they will often reflect something of his nature and perspective in how they view and live in the world. So, for example, most Americans justifiably consider stealing another person’s property to be wrong.

Alternatively, however, our shared cultural perspective can be quite distorted, despite the fact that the vast majority of us embrace it. We now rightly look back and understand the institution of slavery to be reprehensible. But what will future generations—or more importantly, God—rightly condemn in our own day?

This point carries a corollary: cultural change doesn’t necessarily equal cultural progress. Change can be for good or ill. Abolishing slavery very much reflects the former. I would suggest that many (but not all) of our current norms regarding sex, marriage, and the family—many of which have changed greatly over the last generation or two—are examples of the latter.

3. We need a means by which we can evaluate our own culture.

Watters himself admits in the course of his article “that the idea I can only perceive reality through a distorted cultural lens was unnerving.” While again recognizing that our collective perspective isn’t totally distorted, the concern he expresses is legitimate, It points to our need to find a way to sift through our culture to identify both the precious metals and the dross. 

John Calvin famously characterized the Bible as the corrective lens through which we can see clearly. Likewise, Scripture refers to itself as a lamp that lights our path. Because it conveys God’s own, authoritative perspective, it serves as our indispensable help in choosing which way to turn. Without it, both the positive and negative features of our culture remain far less distinguishable. 

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