Sunday, March 9, 2014

What We Don't Know About Normal

I only just heard about Joe Henrich and his groundbreaking work, but I plan to educate myself further. Henrich's work has implications for anyone who works with human beings and their brains. So, teachers.

Let me try to simplify Henrich's work and then I'll try to explain why we should care.

Normal Isn't

Henrich was doing anthropology grad school field work in Peru in 1995 when he decided to rerun a well-worn economics study game. In the Ultimatum Game, one person receives a chunk of money and then offers a chunk to a second person. If person #2 refuses the offer, both people lose all the money. Both players know the rules.

This is a classic in its field, one of many experiments that is used to argue for certain cognitive consistencies across all human beings, how it is normal to enforce certain standards of fair play. And when Henrich tried it with the residents of the remote village, it didn't turn out the way it was supposed to, at all.

Repeated attempts with various distant groups revealed that this experiment which had long been used to illustrate something basic and normal about all human beings in fact did no such thing. He got a MacArthur Grant and some Presidential recognition, but he couldn't get hired in anthropology. So he went to work at the University of British Columbia, where they split him between economics and psychology.

If you want to read more in detail about his career, here's a great article for that. In short, he and his colleagues have been unraveling a boatload of allegedly normal cognitive issues. For instance-- this optical illusion?

Yeah, it's not normal to see an optical illusion. Turns out that lots of folks have no trouble at all seeing two lines of equal length. Turns out that whether you grow up in houses or in fields affects how your brains manages visual information. This "illusion" is not universal-- it's cultural.

Henrich, working with Steven Heine and Ara Norenzaya, was realizing that spatial reasoning, categorization, moral reasoning, inferences about other people, boundaries between self and others-- these and other areas of cognition are hugely shaped by culture and experience. Our experience and culture has a huge impact on how our brains work.

On top of that, as they charted the range of human perception, they found one group of people consistently off in their own little corner. For that group they coined the term WEIRD-- Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

What That Means To Teachers

One of the implications of Henrich's work are simple but profound-- an awful lot of previous research is crap.

This is not entirely a new insight. When scientists work with subjects of convenience, we get meaningless results. The education field is filed with studies that are useless (unless you really need some insights into how the minds of college sophomores at one particular university work). But Henrich's work forces us to look at just how unjustified many of our ideas about normal are.

We think science has been studying human beings, but it has really been studying human beings from our own culture. 

So anybody starts telling you that X is a cognitive quality normal to all human beings, your bovine fecal matter detection software should be going off.

What That Means To Education Reform

To review: people who have grown up in different cultures end up with differently-wired brains.

Now. Do you know where you find people who have grown up in completely different cultures living side by side? Yes, that would be America. Folks have been saying, loudly, for a while now, that people living in poverty do not see the world the same way as the rest of us. Now we have research from a completely different angle confirming the same thing.

Chasing Finland and Estonia is a pointless activity because they are different cultures. They do not perceive the world the same way we do. 

My position on standardization is pretty simple-- I think it's bunk. Standardization is a simple process by which we declare that X is Normal, and we then measure everything by that idea of Normal. Our educational status quo is a one-size-fits-all approach to both teaching and the measuring of that teaching. Everyone should learn the same thing the same way and then demonstrate their understanding in the same way. Because all of those same things are normal, right?

Wrong. There is no normal. And a nation founded on the notion of combining many cultures and backgrounds and worldviews should be the absolute last place that we insist everybody be Normal. Particularly when the research suggests that we are the least Normal peoples in the world.


  1. I read the linked article and found it fascinating. Thanks.

  2. Also, no such thing as Average. If you haven't read it, The End of Average by Todd Rose blows standards and standardized testing out of the water! Highly recommended!