I read this excellent post from Jason Collins while sipping my morning coffee and it reminded me that I was looking at a random list of “25 most influential behavioural economists” a couple of days ago and thinking something similar… it was quite a homogeneous list.
(This was going to be a post but it ended up longer so here it is as an off-the-cuff article!) Judgment and decision making, the field that produces much of what we call behavioural economics research, is a discipline almost entirely spearheaded by white, (upper) middle class American and some Israeli/Dutch/British scientists.
I’ve been quietly wondering for a long time how influences a scientific discipline, especially one focused on how we make decisions as human beings, if it is driven predominantly by a very particular kind of cultural group. As uncomfortable as it might be to consider, science is influenced by the scientist’s cultural background and context: the topic of study, the assumptions/premises, the choice of methods (epistemology/ontology) and of course the interpretation and generalisability assumptions.
Recent evidence supports this idea, mapping cultural distance from both US and China — the main countries for JDM research are all relatively close to the US (Canada, UK, Australia, and also other Western European countries).
One example is the focus on individual choice. Individual choice is hugely important for American culture — it’s considered an important right, almost above everything else. I finally understood this very tangibly after spending a lot of time travelling in the US. One morning in a San Francisco cafe it crystallised when I counted how many choices I needed to make just to get my breakfast bagel and coffee: 11.
To do the same in Italy, I make 2.
I was exasperated by the number of choices I had needed to make, and it puzzled me why and how that customer service experience came to be — surely everyone else was exhausted by these choices too? But no — being able to exercise choice is paramount to American society, and people are used to it. They continuously and subconsciously develop and track intricate catalogues of preferences and can articulate them from a young age. In contrast, I’ll tell another anecdote from a holiday some 10 years ago with a Japanese friend who was also a cross-cultural psychologist: I asked her what she wanted to do that day and she replied “you know it’s funny, I don’t know what I want to do before I know what you want to do”.
To me, this was mind-blowing — how can you not know what you feel like doing? Yet, this is not an individual quirk — it’s a feature of interdependent selves, common outside of the WEIRD world, where continuous consideration of other people’s preferences to preserve harmony is a natural process people learn from childhood. For us, this seems like being a “doormat” — our personal choices should always come first, otherwise it is seen as a weakness.
This is just an example off the top of my head, while I’m sipping my morning coffee — no references this time, but it is easily googleable, and I will address it in my upcoming articles about cultural context and decision making.
For more reading on cultural context and values influencing science: