Thursday, July 1, 2010

WEIRD People and BIZARRE Chimps

The article "the weirdest people in the world?" (which I already mentioned last year, here), has finally been published in the current issue of the Behavioral and Brain Sciences (subscription needed, preprint can be found here).

In this article, Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, argue that
"Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies."
Henrich et al. question whether these 'standard' subjects are really representative of homo sapiens as a species and instead hold that there is a substantial variability across cultures in domains such as
"visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ."
The data they review indicate that both adults and children living in WEIRD societies
"are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans."
This position is sure to cause much debate, especially given that the article contains such tongue-in-cheek parts as mentioning that psychologists would surely bristle if the premier journal in social psychology, the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology", would be renamed to more accurately reflect its main sample: "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of American Undergraduate Psychology Students" (Henrich et al. 2010: 63)

This is why the target article is accompanied by 28 commentaries, which interestingly, are too a large extent quite positive. What is less surprising is that many of the commentaries use the acronym WEIRD for puns or come up with their own ones.

Here's a sample of the titles:
  • Weird people, yes, but also weird experiments (Baumard & Sperber 2010)
  • Weirdness is in the eye of the beholder (Bennis & Medin 2010)
  • It’s not WEIRD, it’s WRONG: When Researchers Overlook uNderlying Genotypes, they will not detect universal processes (Gaertner et al. 2010)
  • Wired but not WEIRD: The promise of the Internet in reaching more diverse samples (Gosling et al. 2010)
  • ODD (observation- and description-deprived) psychological research (Rai & Fiske 2010)
  • In a very interesting article, Leavens et al. (2010) claim that "BIZARRE chimpanzees do not represent “the chimpanzee.”" They caution that great apes from "Barren, Institutional, Zoo, And other Rare Rearing Environments" (BIZARRE) differ cognitively from great apes living in the wild. This makes it dangerous to make generalized statements about the cognitive capacities of great apes that are based mainly on experiments with BIZARRE apes. This is also the main thrust of the commentary by primatologist Christophe Boesch.
Leavens et al. (2010: 101) also have a very interesting graph comparing the pointing behaviors of wild chimpanzees, instituationalized chimpanzees and home-raised or language trained-chimpanzees, which varies markedly from one another. Rearing history and early development thus seem to be able to influence the pointing behaviour and interaction skills of chimpanzees quite heavily.

This is especially important given that researchers like Michael Tomasello and others argue that pointing declaratively to help, inform, and share motives and attitudes in a rich interactive setting characterized by joint attention, shared intentionality, common ground, as well as role- and perspective-taking is the key human cognitive specialization that makes us human and separates us from the other apes.

Most strikingly, in Leavens et al. 's (2010) analysis, chimpanzees also point declaratively, but this is contested by other researchers (e.g. Tomasello 2006, Tomasello 2008, see here). The main question here is how to understand "declarative pointing" and the cognitive capacities behind it, but this is a difficult topic. For Tomasello "declarative pointing" involves "a declarative motive" which
"assumes a partner with the psychological states of interest and attention, which one can then attempt to share."
And according to Tomasello, chimpanzees lack this understanding (Tomasello 2006).
Leavens et al. on the other hand define "declarative pointing" as
"Pointing to draw somebody’s attention to an object or event; includes responses to queries, such as pointing to an object when asked where that object is."
Tomasello would argue that the latter part does not belong into the category of declarative pointing as these kinds of gestures are not to be seen as as truly declarative or informative, as they are more
recognitory or classificatory, as the ape simply recognizes something and produces the associated sign in recognition“ (Tomasello 2008: 38)."
But as Leavens et al. (2010) also claim that chimpanzees point "to draw somebody’s attention to an object or event" and not only as a direct classificatory reaction, this stands in direct contrast to Tomasello's position. I'm very interested in how this debate will continue.