Character  &  Context

Culture and history matter to the psychological sciences

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By: Adam Baimel

There is a clear trend in the psychological sciences and it’s time we all get behind it. We’ve come a long way from making inferences about human nature, or any feature of cognition or behavior based on any given single instance of it. That is, the history of psychology as a field of research has evolved from philosophical contemplations of human nature à la William James, to somewhat more tangible case studies à la Freud, (and not without acknowledging the considerable steps along the way) to today’s climate that calls for rigorous experimental methodologies and large sample sizes. What these changes have provided the field is an ever-widening scope of both the types of questions we can ask and answer, and the conviction with which claims can be made about the nature of human psychology. So, what’s next you might ask?

Well, Henrich (2015) presents evidence of the (mostly) untapped cultural variation that exists in human social cognition and behaviour around the world. That is, there is much to be gained in the psychological sciences in realizing that the how we go about our science matters just as much as who it is we are studying. Especially, as the majority of participants in today’s studies are WEIRD undergraduate students (WEIRD - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic; Henrich, Heine & Norenzayan, 2010) – a single, and unrepresentative instance of ‘human’ in terms of the global population.

To begin tapping into this cultural variability, Henrich and his many colleagues have deployed a variety of economic games, in which participants divvy up real money between themselves and others under various constraints, around the world and across diverse societies. These methods allow for the systematic study of decision-making processes about tangible resources in a manner that allows for interpretable comparisons and inferences across sites. Their results consistently demonstrate that intuitions about cooperation vary to a great extent across cultures. This cultural variation includes radically different conceptualizations of fairness, the types of behaviors deserving of punishment, as well the extent to which all of these intuitions are geographically bounded.   

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, Henrich presents a framework from which the field can move beyond simply cataloguing the variability that exists in the world to accounting for it. Social psychologists have long understood the importance of considering context in explaining behavior. Here, the case is made for understanding any given context in terms of its greater cultural context. Specifically, how contexts, and thus human behaviors, are shaped by locally bounded social norms and institutions that produce and sustain these measurable large-scale cultural differences.

For instance, Henrich explains that intuitions about fairness, and especially those in regards to how strangers should be treated have coevolved with the emergence of market and trade economies. Specifically, Henrich and his colleagues have demonstrated that market integration (e.g., how much of one’s daily intake of food is purchased from others/markets/stores/etc…) is reliably and strongly correlated with greater offers to anonymous others in a variety of economic games. That is, those who are more dependent on market economies for their livelihood (which requires interacting with numerous non-relatives on a regular basis) are more likely to have both internalized this social norm of impersonal trust required to sustain this type of economy and actually use this intuition as a basis for making decisions about the distribution of resources. As market integration varies across societies around the world, so do intuitions about impersonal fairness.

Furthermore, in some parts of the world this expansion of the sphere of moral concern to include anonymous strangers is sustained by beliefs in powerful moralizing gods who can both see all and punish behavior. Culturally inherited and normatively held beliefs that, ‘god is watching’ and that, ‘god cares about what it is humans do’ helps enforce and maintain prosocial behaviors at times where human policing becomes unsustainable. Where these beliefs are prevalent and supported by institutions, Henrich and his colleagues systematically find up to 10% increases in average offers made to anonymous others in these economic games.

These are but a few instances of the examples Henrich uses to demonstrate that our collective history, and the cultural evolution of social norms recorded there in it, is ripe with natural experiments from which predictions about the nature of human behavior can be derived. Furthermore, these social norms influence human psychology in myriad ways beyond apparent behaviors. For example, the relatively recent emergence of normative monogamous marriage has domesticated men and had an effect on their hormones (Henrich, Boyd, & Richerson, 2012). The ecology of Ancient China that dictated whether farming was best suited for rice or wheat has had a potent effect on shaping collectivistic and individualistic orientations (Talhelm et al., 2014). This distinction between collectivist and individualist cultures is perhaps the most widely cited instance of a cultural difference in psychology today that shapes general patterns of brain activation (see also Shihui Han’s article in this issue of Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences).

Taking all this together provides us with a framework from which we can understand far-reaching cultural evolutionary processes that have consequences on behavior we see today, and how that behavior perpetuates through history. This work, and Henrich and colleagues’ theoretical framework, that of cultural evolutionary game theory, has far reaching implications in understanding where we come from, and where we are going. With its foundations in understanding that we are evolved cultural learners who come into the world ready to become part of our cultural context, this systematic and comparative research program brings us one step closer to understanding the nature of the psychological processes that make us human.

Adam Baimel is a M.A. student in Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Adam’s research focuses primarily on how features of religious ritual engage our evolved social cognition in promoting prosociality, with a special interest in Theory of Mind – its development and how to foster social perspective taking in both children and adults. Other research of Adam’s involves investigating the cognitive mechanisms underpinning the experience of awe.  



Henrich, J. (2015). Culture and social behavior. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3, 84–89. 

Henrich, J., Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (2012). The puzzle of monogamous marriage. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 367(1589), 657–669.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61–83; discussion 83–135.

Talhelm, T., Zhang, X., Oishi, S., Shimin, C., Duan, D., Lan, X., & Kitayama, S. (2014). Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture. Science, 344(6184), 603–608.

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