Industries in Depth

Why we need a global view of human behaviour

Rafael Batista
MSc Student, University of Warwick
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Earlier this month, the World Bank released its World Development Report (WDR) 2015 on the topic of mind, society and behaviour. Its findings were threefold: that people think automatically, they think socially, and they develop mental models to better understand their environment.

There are plenty of examples for the first two findings. Have you ever made a decision based on a gut feeling or intuition, when it just “felt like the right choice”? Most of us are also familiar with the power of social influence; in a world of Instagram, WhatsApp and Ice Bucket Challenges, our social norms and networks are part of our identity.

The third finding, however, may be a surprise to many people, including those who study behavioural economics: the culture in which we grow up. This can have implications for the way we interact with the world. For example, research conducted between German mothers and Cameroonian Nso mothers shows that German babies receive more face-to-face interaction. Babies in Germany are often carried facing the parent and are better at distinguishing facial expressions up to a certain age, compared with Cameroonian Nso babies who are carried facing outwards and are quicker to develop motor skills and a greater sense of community.

The WDR 2015 report notes that “mental models provide us with default assumptions about the people we interact with and the situations we face”. However, because of the scope of the report, the reader may be left thinking that mental models are only different between developing and developed societies. This is not the case, of course: in a study similar to the one above, American mothers were found to spend twice as much time interacting face-to-face with their child than Japanese mothers. It’s important to keep in mind that just because a mental model is different from our own, that does not mean it is more or less efficient.

As we grow older we take our view of the world for granted. It’s hard to imagine thinking about time and space, such abstract concepts, in any way other than the way we are used to. But anthropologists and cross-cultural psychologists have been observing these differences in mental models for decades. The way people describe colours and understand space and categorize objects and even reason can vary from culture to culture. Cole and Scribner, in a series of cross-cultural studies, look at the effect of formal schooling and informal education, and conclude that while formal schooling improves logical reasoning, informal education is just as important (if not more important) for practical tasks in daily life.

The WDR highlights mental models that seem to correlate with poverty because they are “out of sync” with the real world. The different models discussed are presented as problems that may be corrected using insights from behavioural economics. I imagine this is due to the report’s focus on development, but it might have been better to note that not all mental models found within developing countries are out of sync with the real world, even if they are out of sync with the developed world.

In much of the behavioural-science literature to date, nearly 96% of participants studied are from WEIRD nations (Western, educated and from industrialized, rich and democratic nations). By studying human behaviour and decision-making through models observed in the US and Western Europe, we run the risk of developing theories that fail to describe most of the world’s people.

Whenever a person or an organization attempts to change a particular behaviour, it’s important to understand and diagnose the problem. Context is important in understanding behaviour, and companies using behavioural-science approaches tend to account for cultural context when they use controlled experiments specific to the problem they’re addressing (a luxury often not enjoyed by academics under pressure to publish generalized findings and with limited participant pools).

By working with local experts to design the experiments and develop the interventions, behaviour change is possible – and often successful. However, when it comes to interpreting the results, academics and professionals are left to rely on prior theory, which has been tested, peer-reviewed, and published – all in a WEIRD context.

The behavioural economic industry will likely play an invaluable role in the future of the field, because their methodology is often on a par with academic labs. However, their topics are more diverse and their projects are more specific to the problem they’re addressing. As behavioural consulting companies expand to various countries, there’s an opportunity to update understanding of decision-making by publishing their results in academic journals, testing accepted theories in cross-cultural contexts, and developing new theories from a global perspective.

Academic labs should also work to increase international partnerships. The cost of running large-scale cross-national experiments is decreasing and global data sets are becoming more accessible. Not all studies require a cross-cultural sample, but those that claim to describe human behaviour should test their hypothesis through diverse mental models.

The World Bank report highlights the importance of looking abroad as well as at home to get a fuller picture of human behaviour. It may be the most impactful World Development Report they’ve published and it will likely spark many conversations and projects. But the focus should not be limited to comparing the world’s poorer nations to industrialized societies. Context is important in understanding decisions and behaviour, and culture is a part of context that can’t be overlooked.

More on behavioural science
What role does culture play in development?
Is this a neuroscience research bubble?
The economics of Christmas
Can robots be artistic?

Author: Rafael Batista is an MSc student in Behavioural & Economic Science at the University of Warwick. He studied cross-cultural psychology at Koc University in Istanbul as a Florida State University Social Science Scholar, and he holds degrees in Psychology and International Affairs, both from Florida State University. Follow him on Twitter @RafMBatista

Image: A woman walks with her two children at sunset near the seashore in Benghazi April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

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