If you come from a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic society, then you’re WEIRD. And if you are, you might think about ethics differently than a majority of people alive today.

We all assume that we’re normal (to at least some degree). And it’s natural to assume everyone else sees the world at least somewhat similarly to the way we do. This is such a pervasive phenomenon that even psychology researchers have fallen into this trap, and it has influenced the way they have conducted their studies and the conclusions they have drawn about human nature. 

Many psychology studies purport to investigate universal features of the human mind using a representative sample of people. However, the problem is that these samples are not typical of humans. The usual test subject in a psychology study is drawn from a very narrow pool, with around 80 percent being undergraduate students attending a university in the United States or another Western country.  

If human psychology really was universal, this selection bias wouldn’t matter. But it turns out our minds don’t all work alike, and culture plays a huge role in shaping how we think. Even features of our minds that were once believed to be universal, such as depth perception, vary from one culture to another. For example, American undergraduate students are far more likely to see the two lines in the classic Muller-Lyer illusion as being significantly different lengths, whereas San forages of the Kalahari in southern Africa are virtually immune to the illusion. 

But it’s not just perception that varies among cultures. It’s also the way we think about right and wrong, which has serious ramifications for how we answer ethical questions. 

WEIRD ethics

Imagine you and a stranger are given $100 to split between you. However, there’s a catch. The stranger gets to decide how much of the $100 to offer you and what proportion they get to keep. They could split it 50:50, or 90:10. It’s all up to them. If you accept their offer, then you both get to keep your respective proportions. But if you reject the offer, you both get nothing. 

Now imagine they offered you $50. Would you accept? It turns out that most people from Western countries would. But what if they offer you $10, so they get to keep $90? Most WEIRDos would reject this offer, even if it means they miss out on a “free” $10. One way to look at this is that WEIRD subjects were willing to incur a $10 cost to “punish” the other for being unfair. 

This is called the Ultimatum Game, and it’s much studied in psychology and economics circles. For quite some time, researchers believed it showed that people are naturally inclined to offering a fair split, and recipients were naturally willing to punish those who offered an unfair amount. 

However, repeated experiments have since shown that this is largely a WEIRD phenomenon, and individuals from non-WEIRD cultures, particularly from small-scale societies, behave very differently. People from these cultures were far more likely to offer a smaller proportion to their partner, and the recipients were far more likely to accept low offers than people from WEIRD cultures.  

So, instead of revealing some universal sense of fairness, what the Ultimatum Game did was reveal how different cultures, and different social norms, shape the way people think about fairness and punishment. Far from being universal, it turns out that much of our thinking about fairness is a product of the culture in which we were raised. 

It’s conventional

Another fascinating discovery that emerged from comparing WEIRD with non-WEIRD populations was that different cultures think about ethics in very different ways.  

Research by Lawrence Kohlberg in the United States in the 1970s uncovered patterns in how children develop their moral reasoning abilities as they age. Most children start off viewing right and wrong in purely self-interested terms – they do the right thing simply to avoid punishment. The next stage sees children come to understand that moral norms keep society functioning smoothly, and do the right thing to maintain social order. The third stage of development goes beyond social conventions and starts to appeal to abstract ethical principles about things like justice and rights. 

While these stages have been observed in most WEIRD populations, cross-cultural studies have found that non-WEIRD people from small-scale societies don’t tend to exhibit the final stage, with them sticking to conventional morality. And this has nothing to do with lack of education, as even university professors in non-WEIRD societies show the same pattern of moral thinking. 

So, rather than showing clear stages of moral development, Kohlberg’s research just revealed something unique about WEIRD people, and their cultural emphasis on autonomy, while many other societies emphasise community or divinity as the basis of ethics. 

Who are you?

The research on WEIRD psychology, has led to a significant shift in the way that psychologists and philosophers think about morality. On the one hand, it has shown that many of our assumptions about human universals in moral thinking are strongly influenced by our own cultural background. And on the other, it has shown that morality is a hugely more diverse landscape than was often assumed by WEIRD philosophers. 

It has also caused many people to reflect on their own cultural influences, and pause to realise that their perspective on many important ethical issues might not be shared by a majority of people alive today. That doesn’t mean that we should lapse into a kind of anything-goes moral relativism, but it does encourage us to exercise humility when it comes to how certain we are in our attitudes, and also seek strong reasons to support our ethical views beyond just appealing to the contingencies of our upbringing. 

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