Saturday, 20 April 2013

Human Cognition - Cultural Bias Beyond the WEIRD World

Anyone who has lived for any length of time in a culture that is different from the one they were originally raised probably noticed differences, sometimes subtle, in the way that those in the different culture observe the world and things around them.  The more different the culture, the sharper these differences become.  Many people simply discount these differences are quirks.  What scientists are beginning to find is that these "quirks" are often significant, and the differences challenge long held assumptions of human psychological universality. A recent write up in Pacific Standard (found here) goes into detail on what scientists are beginnning to find.  Both the article as well as the research study behind it are an excellent read.

In short, it states that the "generalized standard" for the vast majority of human psychology, cognition and behavior research studies in the world's top journals is based almost entirely upon people who come from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies (WEIRD).  What scientists are now finding is that there is substantial variability in the way that different cultures perceive the world, from fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self concepts and related motivations; and that population groups from the "generalized standard" are particularly unusual and frequent outliers compared to the rest of mankind.  Americans in particular fall at the extreme end of the scale even within the unusual population of Westerners, making them "outliers among outliers".

This brings into question a wide body of underlying assumptions, ones that form much of the foundation of societies.  If there are fundamental differences in the fabric of how people from different cultures observe the world, how can this be reconciled within the rules that make up everything from civil norms, the ways that people do business, and even education?  Might it even be possible to exploit the potential richness of different mental models within a business or community to make it a business or community more successful?

While different models can and do cause confusion and misunderstanding, they can also provide a richness that spurs creativity and innovation.  Perception that is different than your own is neither necessarily better or worse than your own.  It is simply different.  Exploration of these differences allow you to see potentially useful concepts that otherwise you may have missed.  People, from businessmen to the intellectually curious, have studied concepts as far ranging as Japanese business practices to Buddhism and Eastern mysticism. Steve Jobs, someone that many find to be a creative genius, was inspired by Zen Buddhism.  Others have been heavily influenced by experiences they and their families have experienced, from famines and depressions to wars and idealogical conflicts. They all leave imprints upon the way people approach problems, and being aware of them and their impact upon your mental models goes a long way to allowing you to not only better understand yourself, but also to help open yourself up to other models as well.

Those who are open to exploring often find entirely new ways of thinking, allowing themselves to question the previous certainty of the world around them and opening up entirely new opportunities that they would have otherwise completely missed.

Can businesses also take advantage of this?  Many businesses talk about diversity, but more often than not retain a certain rigidity to their own internal culture.  Opening up to different models, not in a soft HR-led politically correct way but in a much more scientific approach, may allow businesses to be both more innovative.  They also may help companies spot potential "perception misalignments" that may introduce risks to the business.

No comments:

Post a Comment