According to a recent New York Times article, a group of researchers at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, have released a study that criticizes the current approach taken to discover the “universals of humanity.”
The premise of the study is that most psychology research is performed in U.S. universities. Consequently:
68 percent of research subjects in a sample of hundreds of studies in leading psychology journals came from the United States, and 96 percent from Western industrialized nations. Of the American subjects, 67 percent were undergraduates studying psychology â€” making a randomly selected American undergraduate 4,000 times likelier to be a subject than a random non-Westerner.
The study cites the tendency of American subjects to hold individualism as more important than most other cultures as well as the Western prevalence of defining oneself based on psychological traits vs. non-Westerners doing so based on their relationships.
The study is not meant to say that extrapolating universals is impossible, but that perhaps we could have a better subject pool from which to draw these conclusions.
Several critics argue that these collegiate subjects’ outlying traits are simply surface differences with universals underlying them in large part. It seems that no one argues the fact that Big Psychology has “extrapolated from an outlying few the ways of the global many.”
One of the relevant effects of this extrapolation is the relationship the West has with the rest of the world. One prime example of this is the Western belief that all people feel similarly about authority and thus democracy is the ideal. Another is that, while economists say that “all humans are self-interested rational actors”, many people in cultures both Western and non-Western often fail to meet this expectation.
One interesting criticism to the study was offered by psychologist Paul Rozin, who argues that "extrapolating from Americans is acceptable because the world is Americanizing. The U.S. is in the vanguard of the global world, and may provide a glimpse into the future.”
Or maybe, just maybe, it is just a bunch of Canucks trying to get people to diversify the recipients of their research funding largess. Say, Canada, perhaps?
In the mean time, maybe in order to understand mankind we have to look at that word itself. MANKIND. Basically, it’s made up of two separate words “mank” and “ind.” What do these words mean? It’s a mystery and that’s why so is mankind. (~Jack Handy).
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