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Is There Such a Thing as "Human Nature"?

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  • Is There Such a Thing as "Human Nature"?

    Is There Such a Thing as "Human Nature"?


    In the summer of 1995, a young graduate student in anthropology at UCLA named Joe Henrich traveled to Peru to carry out some fieldwork among the Machiguenga, an indigenous people who live north of Machu Picchu in the Amazon basin. The Machiguenga had traditionally been horticulturalists who lived in single-family, thatch-roofed houses in small hamlets composed of clusters of extended families. For sustenance, they relied on local game and produce from small-scale farming. They shared with their kin but rarely traded with outside groups.

    While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run a behavioral experiment that had been developed not by psychologists or anthropologists, but by economists. Henrich used a “game”  –   along the lines of the famous prisoner’s dilemma –  to see whether relatively isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. In doing so, Henrich expected to confirm one of the foundational assumptions underlying such experiments, and indeed underpinning the entire fields of economics and psychology: that humans all share the same cognitive machinery –  the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring.

    The test that Henrich introduced to the Machiguenga was called the ultimatum game. The rules are simple: in each game there are two players who remain anonymous to each other. The first player is given an amount of money, say $100, and told that he has to offer some of the cash, in an amount of his choosing, to the other subject. The second player can accept or refuse the split. But there’s a hitch: players know that if the recipient refuses the offer, both leave empty-handed. North Americans, who are the most common subjects for such experiments, usually offer a 50-50 split when on the giving end. When on the receiving end, they show an eagerness to punish the other player for uneven splits at their own expense. In short, Americans show the tendency to be equitable with strangers – and to punish those who are not.

    Among the Machiguenga, word spread quickly of the young, square-jawed visitor from America giving away money. The stakes Henrich used in the game with the Machiguenga were not insubstantial –  roughly equivalent to a few days’ wages they sometimes earned from episodic work with logging or oil companies. So Henrich had no problem finding volunteers. What he had great difficulty with, however, was explaining the rules, as the game struck the Machiguenga as profoundly odd.

    When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”

    The implications of these unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences –  particularly in economics and psychology –  relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments.
    "There are four lights!"

  • #2
    “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”
    They must not have been introduced to the progressive redistribution game.
    Last edited by deudyurondame; Saturday, November 2, 2013, 6:40 PM.

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    • #3
      The flaws are always in the details.


      Gaming research is a valuable skill. It's a nice anecdote, but what does his data really say?
      "Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind : which, if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason, and so cannot be opposite to it."

      -John Locke

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      • #4
        A paraphrased comment from my time in Somalia:

        "I can't spend or save your American dollars. I can eat your baked chicken mirie (MRE), I can trade your chocolate, and I can ransom your living body or sell your dead body. Help me live and I will help you live. You can call for my death on the radio but you will die first."

        Anthropologists don't account for these motivations.
        "Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind : which, if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason, and so cannot be opposite to it."

        -John Locke

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by scott View Post
          A paraphrased comment from my time in Somalia:

          "I can't spend or save your American dollars. I can eat your baked chicken mirie (MRE), I can trade your chocolate, and I can ransom your living body or sell your dead body. Help me live and I will help you live. You can call for my death on the radio but you will die first."

          Anthropologists don't account for these motivations.
          Bellum omnium contra omnes
          "There are four lights!"

          Comment


          • #6
            Fascinating article. We're even more exceptional than we thought we were.
            Enjoy.

            Comment


            • #7
              Fascinating article!

              I think the analytic versus holistic split is probably influenced by the urban/rural thing. Until recently most people lived in rural or small village settings and many, many people in developing economies still do or did in their childhood and adolescence. I seriously doubt that the line length test results would look appreciably different among urban Chinese, wealthy Saudis, or medical students in Goa but those results might look different from the results obtained from Carthusian monks or self-sufficient homesteaders.

              The problem here is that most psychological research is performed on college students or military recruits: large, captive groups. Very little is done in rural areas (American or otherwise), among transient populations, among subcultures (religious, lifestyle, or ethnic including European ethnicities that retain cultural distinctives in the U.S.). or among adults of working age who aren't connected with schools, the military, or law enforcement.

              Culture matters, no doubt about that. What culture best fits a highly technological, extremely dense urban environment composed of unrelated strangers (some of whom are dangerous) would be an interesting thought experiment.
              "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by Gingersnap View Post
                Fascinating article!

                I think the analytic versus holistic split is probably influenced by the urban/rural thing. Until recently most people lived in rural or small village settings and many, many people in developing economies still do or did in their childhood and adolescence. I seriously doubt that the line length test results would look appreciably different among urban Chinese, wealthy Saudis, or medical students in Goa but those results might look different from the results obtained from Carthusian monks or self-sufficient homesteaders.

                The problem here is that most psychological research is performed on college students or military recruits: large, captive groups. Very little is done in rural areas (American or otherwise), among transient populations, among subcultures (religious, lifestyle, or ethnic including European ethnicities that retain cultural distinctives in the U.S.). or among adults of working age who aren't connected with schools, the military, or law enforcement.

                Culture matters, no doubt about that. What culture best fits a highly technological, extremely dense urban environment composed of unrelated strangers (some of whom are dangerous) would be an interesting thought experiment.
                Quis distincto es planto?

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by deudyurondame View Post
                  Quis distincto es planto?
                  That's not question being asked here or only in the most oblique way. The question here is what distinctions 21st century conditions will favor and why?
                  "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."

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