John Denney of The Weirdos checks out photographer Alice Bag pretending to be... John Denney. Weird. Photo by Alice Bag via
John Denney of The Weirdos checks out photographer Alice Bag pretending to be… John Denney. Weird. Photo by Alice Bag via

When you’re regularly “weird,” you get used to others’ asking you to “just be reasonable.” However, a new trend in sociological approaches to economics and psychology suggests that our version of “reasonable” may be, well, pretty weird.

In a recent article for Pacific Standard, Ethan Watters reviews the work of Joe HenrichSteven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, three scholars whose work on the western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic mind suggests that “rational” thought means very different things to different people. As the authors watched games based on economic exchange play out around the world, the concept of getting a fair deal seemed to have everything to do with social context:

The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans [indigenous Amazonians] played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries… Our economies hadn’t been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was the other way around.

Stranger still, it seems this assumption that the weird mind is normal has a huge impact on the practice of psychological research—not to mention our understanding of rationality in the social world.:

A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: …96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.

Westerners (and Americans in particular) tend to reason analytically as opposed to holistically. That is, the American mind strives to figure out the world by taking it apart and examining its pieces.

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.

Who’s weird now? Probably everyone.