I'm weird. Chances are that you're weird. In fact the society you live in is probably weird too. Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic. It's an acronym that was new to me until I read this piece about the work of Joe Henrich, a professor in Psychology and Economics at the University of British Columbia.
Dr Henrich is the co-author of a paper that is creating something of a stir in the fields of psychology, behavioural economics and cognitive science by questioning the validity of broad claims about human psychology and behaviour using studies which are based on samples drawn entirely from WEIRD societies. His researchers found that 96% of behavioural science experiment subjects are from Western industrialized countries, yet these countries account for just 12% of the world's population. In the field of psychology, the US accounts for 70% of all journal citations, compared with 37% in chemistry. Sometimes, a group of undergraduate students are used to stand in for the entire species.
The huge assumption behind the conclusions of many behavioural studies is that these samples are representative of all humans, and that there is little variation across human populations. In reality, says Henrich, this is not true. Psychology varies across cultures in ways that chemistry doesn't. WEIRD subjects are often outliers - unusual compared with the rest of the species, seeing the world in ways that contrast with the rest of the human family, and reacting differently in experiments involving measures of visual perception (illustrated by distinct reactions to well-known optical illusions like the Muller-Lyer illusion), fairness and co-operation (disimilar results to common economic experiments like The Ultimatum Game), categorization (westerners group objects based on resemblance so for example notebooks and magazines go together, while Chinese people prefer function, so a notebook would go with a pencil), questions of individualism and conformity, reasoning styles, and concepts of self. WEIRD societies, says Henrich, are among the least representative populations for generalizing about humans, and "if you're a Westerner, your intuitions about human psychology are probably wrong or at least there's good reason to believe they're wrong". Us WEIRD people, apparently, really are the weird ones.
It's a challenging point of view. And a reminder perhaps that we don't always know what we think we know.
BBC Dimensions, the prototype designed by BERGLondon that "takes important places, events and things, and overlays them onto a map of where you are" rightly got some twitter love over the last few days. It's a lovely idea. One of the things I liked most about the story of how it came about was Matt Jones's description of how "something huge and momentous is made grokkable in the familiar".
Grok means to understand thoroughly, intuitively, empathically. Robert A Heinlein coined the term in Stranger in a Strange Land, the story of a man born during (and the only survivor of) the first manned mission to Mars. Raised by Martians, he returns to Earth possessed of strange powers but also as a true innocent. In the book, Grok is a martian word relating to the intermingling of two realities or intelligence to create a new shared reality or thinking that may be greater than the sum of its parts. Separate entities that become entangled in the same experiences, history, goals, purpose.
In hacker culture, Grok denotes a level of knowledge so intimate and exhaustive that it has become part of you and your identity, rather than merely learning in a detached instrumental way. In ideology, a grokked concept becomes part of the person that helped contribute towards its evolution by refining, improving or perpetuating it. Design and data visualisation is good at making stuff grokkable. Its a good aspiration. And a word I shall be using more.
"Every day, millions of people share how they feel with the people who matter the most in their lives..."
Ever since I came across the work of Adam Kramer (a psychologist from the University of Oregon) to develop a behavioural model of "Gross National Happiness" using analysis of positive and negative words in Facebook updates, I've been kind of intrigued by the possibilities of being able to measure something that is truly worth measuring - the happiness of a population. Kramer's work resulted in a quantitative GNH metric that could be tracked and plotted over time, like the visual below of UK happiness over the last six months (notice the big dip when England went out of the world cup).
And then recently, I see the work of Alan Mislove, a computer scientist at Northeastern University, who used twitter to map the emotional state of America:
Somewhat of a runaway winner on this months vote, with Mark Pollard's excellent Why Strategists Should Make Stuff post romping home with a clear lead. Well done Mark - you get the props of your blogging peers and are entered into the ThinkTank Hall Of Fame. Thanks again to everyone for taking part and don't forget to bookmark your good reads for next months nominations.