Rebirth of Reason

Favorite EditSanction this itemFoundations of Human Sociality by Joseph Henrich
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Foundations of Human Sociality
Game theory explorations with 15 "primitive" societies reveals what makes us WEIRD people special. What is it to be "Western Educated Industrialized Rational Democratic"?  

The Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies edited by Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, et al., Oxford University Press, 2004.

Anthropologists from UCLA and other schools set out to apply Game Theory exercises in fifteen so-called “primitive” (small-scale) societies. Contrary to the "noble savage" mythology, first of all, these societies are different from each other. Hunter-gatherers in one place do not share the values of similar folk in another place: culture matters. Different people have different cultures.  That said, all of them are different from us.  We, the Western Educated Industrialized Rational Democratic ("WEIRD") people stand out.  For one thing, we are anonymously generous: we all throw a buck in the Red Kettle at Christmas time, even though we gain no social status from doing that. Some hunter-gatherers are far more generous than we are - but only because it is socially demanded of them for status. And they resent it.  Other hunter-gatherers sneak their kills in after dark, to avoid sharing.


Contrary to the "selfishness axiom" some people (the Au and related Gnau of New Guinea) refused large gifts because they brought a concomitantly large demand of reciprocity. (Just to note, for other research, I met the same attitude among herders in Morocco.)  


Of all the data, perhaps the most subtle point expresses the root of self-ish behavior and rational self interest:

"As mentioned earlier, Machiguenga say little during debriefing because they lack the cultural training to produce post-hoc rationalizations of their behavioral choices. The most frequent response to the question why a subject withdrew the amount that he did was that it was the amount he wanted to withdraw. ...  In contrast to the Machinguenga, the American university subjects had plenty to say ..." (Henrich and Smith, "Comparative Experimental Evidence" ibid., page 152

The take-away point is that those peoples who have some exposure to market exchange and market integration more closely scored like American undergraduates. They had internalized a sense of "fairness." Interestingly, all of the university volunteers from across the nation (and, the editors alluded, also across the Atlantic) scored narrowly together.  Moreover, they did so in a curiously bi-modal distribution of egoism and altruism. 

“One of the curiosities of the relationship between Market Integration and fairness is that we have much ethnographic evidence from the least market oriented societies (especially hunters and gatherers/horticulturalists) that emphasizes a tremendous amount of sharing. The fact that such societies show up in this cross-cultural study as often the least generous in the Ultimatum Game appears superficially to be inconsistent with real life. One explanation for this anomaly is that the high degree of sharing we observe in many of these societies is the result of precise rules specifying behaviors such as meat sharing, and the considerable monitoring that occurs naturally in close-knit and small-scale societies. In other words, despite the apparent presence of sharing, it may not be the case that a ‘norm’ of generalized sharing has been internalized that can be applied to new opportunities and circumstances. Self-enforcement need not develop when second party enforcements is ever-present. In market societies, however, where social monitoring is less efficient and rigid rules mandating sharing do not exist, cooperation may require the internalization of basic norms such as fairness that may have their origins in reputation building.”  (Jean Ensminger, “Market Integration and Fairness” ibid., page 359)

This book provides a rich, dense, timely, and cogent exploration into the significant ways that we WEIRD people stand alone in the world.

Added by Michael E. Marotta
on 10/04, 4:48pm

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