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An Interview with Steven Heine: Looking for Human Universals

Being Human

Sandra Aamodt interviews Dr. Steve Heine for the Being Human blog.


Photo by Olly
Photo by Olly

Sandra Aamodt: Do you believe that there are universal psychological traits?

Steve Heine: There’s good evidence for human universals in some traits, but other traits vary considerably across cultures.

Sandra Aamodt: Why might we be suspicious about some of the claims for human universals?

Steve Heine: I think the guiding assumption in psychology is that we are studying universal processes. A metaphor in a lot of psychological research is the mind as a computer, so the assumption is that the central processing mechanism should largely be the same everywhere and we don’t need to consider variation. This metaphor is wrong because our brains change as a consequence of experience, so you would expect if people have different experiences, they might have some different psychological processes. It’s important to explore evolutionary hypotheses, but you should have confidence in the generalizability of your finding before doing so.

Sandra Aamodt: Why are these cross-cultural comparisons difficult to do?

Steve Heine: You want to make sure that you’re making a fair comparison. At the least, many cultures around the world differ in their languages, which make posing questions challenging. It’s hard making inferences about how people are thinking, especially in a different cultural environment, where there might be different meanings to things and people are attending to different kinds of information. Doing a cross-cultural study is costly and more collaborative because you need language and cultural expertise.

Another difficulty is that people answer survey questions with respect to some implicit standard or norm. If the question is, “Are you a punctual person?” you’re not usually thinking of how many minutes late or early you are, but rather you’re comparing your punctuality to other people that you know. Japanese norms might be a very different than in the US or Brazil, so it’s difficult to make direct comparisons.

Sandra Aamodt: Roughly how many cultures would someone have to examine before you would take a claim of universality seriously?

Steve Heine: In anthropology, there’s a good database on the prevalence of many traits in a wide swath of cultures around the world. I think it’s unrealistic that psychology is going to be able to do that. If you get a similar psychological response between two very different cultures, that’s good evidence for universality—a good starting point at least. For example, Paul Ekman found convergence in emotional expression among people from Western cultures, but critics were saying, “Maybe they learned this from watching each other, rather than something innate.” He went to the Fore in New Guinea, who had only recently been discovered by Westerners and found similar facial expressions, which made for a compelling argument that this is probably universal.

Sandra Aamodt: What would you consider to be some solid findings of human universals?

Steve Heine: Sex differences in violence. Margo Wilson and Martin Daly compared court records for murder back several centuries in the UK and looked at anthropological evidence from existing societies. They looked at same-sex murders because in domestic violence, it’s not clear who is the instigator: a woman might kill her husband for fear that he might kill her. Outside the family, it’s a sizable gap, a ratio of about 20 to 1 in all the different societies that have been explored.

Color perception looks largely similar around the world. Also psychological essentialism, the tendency to understand people in terms of some underlying hidden essence that makes them who they are. There’s a sex-based division of labor in virtually all existing societies. Donald Brown wrote a book on human universals with a long list of features of societies that are universal.

A problem with a lot of these universals is they’re very general. You could say that marriage is a universal, but some societies have polyandry, multiple men marrying one woman, and others have polygamy, multiple women marrying one man. We have gay marriage. There are arranged marriages versus love marriages. So everywhere there are marriages, but that doesn’t tell you much about the relationships involved.

Sandra Aamodt: You’ve criticized some claims for human universals on the grounds that psychologists mostly study WEIRD subjects—those of us who are Western, educated, rich, industrialized, and democratic. How do WEIRD people differ from the rest of the world?

Steve Heine: WEIRD subjects think of people as fundamentally distinct individuals. Non-Western cultures have more tendency to understand people in terms of their relationships, the groups to which they belong, and their roles within those groups.

Our understanding of the physical world seems to be an extension of how we understand our social worlds. If you’re used to thinking of people as part of a social network, then when you try to understand the world, you attend to the relationships among objects, which leads to a much more holistic way of thinking. And if you focus on people as being separate from each other, this also leads you to be less likely to conform. WEIRD people still conform a lot, but not as much as non-Western people. Westerners want more choices in their lives.

If you’re focusing on individuals as separate from each others, then you’re going to have a morality that’s exclusively based on justice—treating each individual alike and an emphasis on individual rights. That principle exists everywhere, but many non-Western cultures also have competing moralities based on relationships and interpersonal obligations. It’s immoral not to go to your parent’s funeral, for instance, in many non-Western cultures. Also morality based on concerns of purity is considerably more common outside of the West.

Sandra Aamodt: What fraction of the world do WEIRD samples represent?

Steve Heine: The West is around 12% of the world’s population—that is, Europe and colonies that derived primarily from Europe, such as North America, Australia, and New Zealand. And university students represent a small fraction of any society. There’s a larger percentage of people who were at university at one point in their lives, but in many ways that’s a very unusual time, when we’re forming attitudes and interpersonal relationships are much more open—you’re meeting more people and in a more casual way. We estimate that the odds of a randomly chosen undergrad from the US ending up in a psychology study is more than 4,000 times higher than the odds of a randomly chosen non-Westerner showing up in a study.

Sandra Aamodt: Is interest in psychology itself a WEIRD trait?

Steve Heine: I think so. In Japan, where I do a lot of my research, psychology majors are far more rare than they are here. At my university in British Columbia, psychology is the number one major, with 900 students a year. One reason might be the more individualistic sense of self that’s common in the West. That makes trying to understand yourself and the origins of your motives a more tangible and a more important activity. Whereas, I think if you are in a more collectivistic society, why you felt a certain way doesn’t really matter. There are clear social norms governing how people should behave, so there is less interest in attending to what you’re feeling.

Sandra Aamodt: Earlier you mentioned psychological essentialism. How does that tendency change the way we look at the world?

Steve Heine: Often essentialism can imply that a characteristic is innate, that someone is born the way that they are. So then you’re going to look at it in a more deterministic way, a more permanent way. In the West, in recent decades, we’ve looked to the genome as representing the essence that we inherit.

Sandra Aamodt: How do reports of genetic influences on behavior affect how people talk and think about themselves?

Steven Heine: Talking about genes prompts an essence-oriented understanding, making us think that we can understand the world in terms of underlying, immutable aspects of ourselves. It makes us homogenize people who share a particular gene and view them as fundamentally distinct from those who don’t.

For example, when you talk about genes underlying ethnic differences, this pushes people to think in more racist ways because now these groups are thought to differ in their essences. When you focus on genetic differences between men and women, people think of the sexes as being more different. Some consequences might be positive: people become more tolerant of gays and lesbians after hearing that there are genes associated with sexual orientation.

In one study, we had people read essays about motivations for male promiscuity. One group read evolutionary accounts focusing on the genome: that those men who were most promiscuous in the ancestral past spread the most genes. The other group read a cultural explanation: that men abuse their position and power and that’s where their promiscuity comes from. Then we had everyone read a court case where someone was convicted of date rape and asked how would you punish this person? People were less punitive when they heard the genetic account. Somehow it seems that he’s not at fault in the same way if the behavior is coming from his genes than if it’s coming from his experiences and from society.

Our environment seems separate from us, so we have that sense that we can resist it, that we don’t have to let it influence us. People don’t seem to think the same way about their genes. They see genes as maybe in some ways reflecting the real you.

Sandra Aamodt: But it’s not true that genetic traits are unchangeable and environmental traits are always changeable, right? You don’t forget your native language, for instance, even though it came from your environment.

Steven Heine: That’s right, exactly. How your mother treated you as an infant isn’t changeable either, once you’re grown up. but that doesn’t lead to the same kind of deterministic responses or the idea that your reactions to that childhood are not a choice.

The challenging part is that genes are involved with almost everything to a degree. The problem is that we overgeneralize from simple genetic relationships, where having a particular allele completely determines whether you will have a disease, to the much less deterministic, much more complicated story of polygenic disorders. There you can have dozens of genes acting in concert, with their expression influenced by environmental experiences.

Sandra Aamodt: I think there’s brain essentialism as well. One study found that showing people a picture of brain activity alongside an argument that made no logical sense caused them to be much more likely to accept the argument.

Steven Heine: I think it shows that we are much more dualists than we like to believe. We think of the mind as somehow separate from the brain, so when we see activation in the brain, we’re surprised and impressed. Research in cultural neuroscience has shown differences in brain activation patterns and the size of relative brain regions between cultural groups. And of course, when people are thinking differently, then there must be different brain activity because that’s where the thinking happens. But somehow seeing the evidence with a brain image makes people view it as much more deterministic.

Sandra Aamodt: My last question is a bit more personal. How has what you’ve learned about science changed the way you live your own life?

Steven Heine: I am very aware of cultural differences and how they shape and guide behavior. My wife grew up in Japan, although she’s done much of her education in North America and is very Westernized. Having an understanding of cultural differences can be a good form of marriage counseling. Of course, you have differences in your ways of seeing things, as any couple does. It’s convenient to say, “Well, it’s because of our cultural differences and the ways that we’re understanding the world.”

Sandra Aamodt: Why do you think it’s so hard to project our perspective outside of our own cultural framework?

Steven Heine: Our cultures are invisible to us. You don’t know much about your culture until you’ve left it. It’s like water to a fish. If everyone around you shares some concern, it’s easy to convince yourself that this is a universal human concern that must have emerged on the savannas of Africa. Because you don’t see any evidence that suggests otherwise. It’s like your accent. You don’t know you have an accent until you hear someone else’s accent. Cultures, like accents, are what other people have. So you need to encounter other people’s accents and ways of doing things before you can understand yourself.

Steven Heine headshotSteven Heine is a Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and a fellow of the American Psychological Society.


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