Context is critical
Often we come across new findings in brain research from fairly credible sources that explain how humans think and make decisions. Our usual reaction is to generalize these findings as fundamental human traits which equally affect all of us irrespective of the context we are living in.
Context, however is critical. Context could be the physical environment in which we are living in or other forces such as culture or religion that influence our day to day behavior. Thus, explanation of human behavior is complete only when we have included the influence of the contextual elements that surround us.
While some of the human traits such as “Fight or flight” may be fundamental, there are number of other behaviors that can vary significantly between different regions, different ethnicities or even within different demographics within the same ethnic group.
This paper published by professors from University of British Columbia refers to the variation in the behaviors of people from different regions in multiple domains such as visual perception, spatial reasoning, moral reasoning etc. The variations are not only interesting but also questions rules around fundamental human interactions.
For example, Fairness experiment conducted using the Ultimatum Game revealed a dramatically different behavior (and probably more rational) between the indigenous people living in Machiguenga, Peru as compared to their American counter parts. Turns out our perception of Fairness, which is usually considered one of the fundamental human instincts, differs based on our life experiences. Social norms around fairness vary based on the degree of market integration and the community size.
The paper also mentions an interesting statistic – as per the review of the top six psychology journals, about 96 percent of human subjects in the studies covered in these journals come from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.
Such a poor representation of the world’s population is a clear warning that we need to be very careful before applying insights from these studies. The implications are many – right from the academic studies to their applications in real life.
So, how do we conduct behavioral studies to observe and explain human behavior? Any behavioral study is conducted in a setting that is in the true context or in a true-like context. We tend to stay away from conducting focus group / lab studies since these are done in closed rooms where participants are completely isolated from real life context.
However while ethnographic studies provide for great observations, they may not always explain the complete behavior. A controlled ethnographic setting that drives the optimal balance between ethnography and controlled lab provides a perfect environment to both observe and explain human behavior. In addition, it also provides the opportunity to identify the levers that could be used to influence this behavior.
Thus, key to explaining human behavior is to also understand the context that this behavior is exhibited in.
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