If WE’RE weird, how do we judge truth?

August 16, 2011

The most recent edition of Fortean Times (FT279) and an article on the Neuroanthropology Blog highlight a review from a mid 2010 issue of Brain and Behavioural Sciences. The review suggests that many psychological studies done over the past century are severely flawed, in that the test subjects were almost all Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic – or WEIRD.

The problem with using such a limited range of people is that the tests have subsequently been used to state universal truths about the psychology of humans. Fortean Times uses the example of the famous Muller-Lyer Illusion, whereby lines with arrow heads on the ends look shorter than lines with out-turned arrows. Apparently WEIRD people (that’s me, and likely you) are more susceptible to this illusion than, say, the San Bushmen or Australian Aboriginals. Different cultures are fooled by the illusion to different extents.

This difference across cultures isn’t limited to the Muller-Lyer Illusion either. Plenty of other classic psychological games and tests were found by Henrich to throw up different results in different places around the globe.

The bit that interests me is in the Fortean Times piece, which notes other psychological phenomena which seem (at least to us WEIRDos) oddly restricted to certain parts of the world:

…such as the Malay amok (violent frenzy), koro (belief that the penis is withdrawing into the body with possible fatal effect), West African ‘brain fog’ (difficulty concentrating and remembering) and North African Zar (spirit possession with laughing, shouting and singing)…

Fortean Times 279: 15

What is intrigues me is just how unrepresentative of the world is our Western psychology?

We can chuckle at penis-shrinking pandemics and witch-hunts in far-off lands, or be condescendingly fascinated by aboriginal religious practices so far removed from the ones we are used to. But it may not just be psychology which is affected by this.

To those suffering from ‘superstitious’ panics these are all too real dangers, and cultures like the Azande incorporate witchcraft into everyday life such that they go almost unnoticed. If our psychology gives us a skewed view of the world, could then other sciences tell us things we are prone to believe anyway? To what extent do we see what we are expecting? Just as the Big Bang theory is not necessarily mutually exclusive of a Christian Creationism, how often do we subtly fit scientific evidence into a world-view we already hold?

I’m certainly not suggesting that we have already modelled the universe in our heads, and are fitting new data to that plan. But to someone who ‘knows’ there is no such thing as ghosts, ley lines, psychic powers and extraterrestrials, mysterious reports will already hold only certain possibilities to them, just as much as to an unquestioning believer in all things paranormal.

Perhaps it’s time we accepted that how we see the world is just how WE see it, and that there are other truths to be held.