November 22, 2013
When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”Well, yes...
Henrich’s work with the ultimatum game emerged from a small but growing counter trend in the social sciences, one in which researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition...
Some of this research went back a generation. It was in the 1960s that researchers discovered that aspects of visual perception varied from place to place. One of the classics of the literature, the Müller-Lyer illusion, showed that where you grew up determined to what degree you would fall prey to the illusion that these two lines are different in length.
Researchers found that Americans perceive the line with the ends feathered outward as being longer than the line with the arrow tips. San foragers of the Kalahari, on the other hand, were more likely to see the lines as they are: equal in length. Subjects from more than a dozen cultures were tested, and Americans were at the far end of the distribution – seeing the illusion more dramatically than all others.
The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do – the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like – but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception. The different ways people perceive the Müller-Lyer illusion reflects lifetimes spent in different physical environments. American children, for the most part, grow up in box-shaped rooms of varying dimensions. Surrounded by carpentered corners, visual perception adapts to this strange new environment (strange and new in terms of human history, that is) by learning to perceive converging lines in three dimensions. When unconsciously translated in three dimensions, the line with the outward-feathered ends appears farther away and the brain therefore judges it to be longer. The more time one spends in natural environments, where there are no carpentered corners, the less one sees the illusion.
The turn ... is not an easy one; accounting for the influence of culture on cognition will be a herculean task. Cultures are not monolithic; they can be endlessly parsed. Ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, economic status, parenting styles, rural upbringing versus urban or suburban – there are hundreds of cultural differences that individually and in endless combinations influence our conceptions of fairness, how we categorize things, our method of judging and decision making, and our deeply held beliefs about the nature of the self, among other aspects of our psychological makeup.
The prisoner’s dilemma is a theoretical tool, but there are plenty of parallel choices – and free riders – in the real world. People who are always late for appointments with others don’t have to hurry or wait for others. Some use roads and hospitals without paying their taxes. There are lots of interesting reasons why most of us turn up on time and don’t avoid paying taxes, even though these might be the selfish “rational” choices according to most economic models.
Crucially, rational actor theory appears more useful for predicting the actions of certain groups of people. One group who have been found to free ride more than others in repeated studies is people who have studied economics... Economics students “informed on” other players 60% of the time, while those studying other subjects did so 39% of the time. Men have previously been found to be more self-interested in such tests, and more men study economics than women. However even after controlling for this sex difference, ... economics students were 17% more likely to take the selfish route when playing the prisoner’s dilemma.
November 21, 2013
The last meal as a cultural phenomenon grew even as capital punishment faded from public view, and in less than two centuries the country has gone from grisly public hangings, in which the prisoner was sometimes unintentionally decapitated or left to suffocate, to lethal injection, the most common form of execution in America today, in which death is “administered.” The condemned are often sedated before execution. They are generally not allowed to listen to music, lest it induce an emotional reaction. Last words are sometimes delivered in writing, rather than spoken; if they are spoken, it might be to prison personnel rather than the witnesses. The detachment is so complete that when scholar Robert Johnson, for his 1998 book Death Work, asked an execution-team officer what his job was, the officer replied: “the right leg.”