Ethan Watters almost made it into the second edition of Emerging with a piece about the Westernization of mental illness, looking at how Western psychological conditions and understandings of mental illness have been exported around the world as part of globalization. But we had so many good pieces for that edition, and Watters didn’t make the cut. I was quite pleased, then, to come across another one of his essays, also about the peculiar impact of the Western world.
In “Being WEIRD: How Culture Shapes the Mind” Watters looks at the work of anthropologist Joe Henrich, whose work with the “ultimatum game” experiment in isolated small-scale communities around the world revealed that much of what social scientists, economists, and psychologists assumed to be “universal” human behavior was in fact a reflection of a distinctly Western psyche. Henrich and his colleagues use this work and other research to argue that Westerners are “weird”: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Far from serving as examples of the universal, Americans (who form the subjects of many experiments in fields such as psychology) are the “weirdest” of all, with responses indicating that they are the outliers among the outliers. Watters examines the implications of these claims, which threaten the foundation of many disciplines.
This essay is a great piece for looking at social science, universality, and globalization. It interrogates the ways in which we take the American mind as the default mind. I’d sequence it with Restak to think about science, Fukuyama to think about universality, and Friedman to examine globalization. Check it out some time.
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