Archive for September, 2013

“We Aren’t the World” – Required Reading Before Going Global

What do we really know about human behavior and motivation, worldwide?

Sustainable business models and social enterprise models count on our ability to understand why our customers buy and use our products and services. Our most successful clients have developed an uncanny sixth sense ability to know the customer’s motivations better than the customer.

On their home turf.

“Home turf”, for many of our clients, means WEIRD countries. Now before anyone takes offense – WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. As long as they grow their ventures into other WEIRD markets, that sixth sense about customer motivation can serve them. But go beyond, and it’s a different story (to which our clients with global reach can attest).

weirdstudylesscrop-Mark_McGinnis

Why is this so?  Why do some of our instincts about customer motives in foreign markets turn out to be wrong – and sometimes waaay wrong??

“We Aren’t the World” is a brilliant article / interview about three researchers at University of British Columbia who, according to author, Ethan Watters, “are shaking the foundations of psychology and economics—and hoping to change the way social scientists think about human behavior and culture.”

Their work has taken them around the world, testing how perceptions, behaviors, and motivations vary by culture. Along the way, they discovered significant biases in the research methods of “…a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences—particularly in economics and psychology…”

“As the three continued their work, they noticed something else that was remarkable: again and again one group of people appeared to be particularly unusual when compared to other populations—with perceptions, behaviors, and motivations that were almost always sliding down one end of the human bell curve.

In the end they titled their paper “The Weirdest People in the World” (pdf) By “weird” they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”

Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.”

How could this happen?? (Did you guess: ‘European colonialism and political correctness’?)

“The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors… “

Decolonizing_Methodologies__CoverI cannot overestimate the importance of developing acute cultural sensitivity when going into regions affected by European colonial expansion, which began in the 15th century and whose impact is felt to this day.

Also, don’t assume you have to cross oceans to find such cultures. I owe a debt of gratitude to my aboriginal clients and friends – members of Coastal First Nations in British Columbia. They helped me through one of the most powerful, disturbing experiences of my career as I learned about the terrible history of abuse of aboriginals in residential schools in Canada. For more information, please visit Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission site.

 

For any colleagues heading into similar territory, the site above, as well as the book: Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples may help heighten your cultural sensitivity.

To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those culturally derived qualities might be… Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.”

But it gets worse. From the research paper:

“Even within the West, however, the typical sampling method for psychological studies is far from representative. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the premier journal in social psychology—the sub‐discipline of psychology that should (arguably) be the most attentive to questions about the subjects’ backgrounds—67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses (Arnett 2008). …”

No. Way. Epic experiment design assumption goes horribly wrong and throws a shadow over an entire field of study. Oh – and anything else that is based on the field in question.

The magazine article concludes:

“And here is the rub: the culturally shaped analytic/individualistic mind-sets may partly explain why Western researchers have so dramatically failed to take into account the interplay between culture and cognition. In the end, the goal of boiling down human psychology to hardwiring is not surprising given the type of mind that has been designing the studies. Taking an object (in this case the human mind) out of its context is, after all, what distinguishes the analytic reasoning style prevalent in the West. Similarly, we may have underestimated the impact of culture because the very ideas of being subject to the will of larger historical currents and of unconsciously mimicking the cognition of those around us challenges our Western conception of the self as independent and self-determined. The historical missteps of Western researchers, in other words, have been the predictable consequences of the WEIRD mind doing the thinking.”

So take heed – if your organization has plans to operate in a foreign cultural context and marketplace:

  • Read the article, research paper, and anything credible you can find about the culture.
  • Find local cultural guides and take a learning journey, immersive far beyond the ‘airport hotel and tour bus’ visit. The aim is to experience firsthand the nation, the people and their culture – down to the specifics of where and how they will buy and use your offering. (Be prepared to put aside anything you’ve read in favor of direct experience.)
  • Given all you have learned, localize your business model, offering and approach.

Maybe then, the locals won’t dismiss you as too WEIRD.

A shout out to Fleurette Sweeny at SelfDesign Learning Foundation for turning us on to this article!

– Gary Ralston

Š 2013 Ralston Consulting Inc.

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Wednesday, September 25th, 2013 Article Archive, Book and Media Reviews, Business Models, Corporate Social Responsibility, Main Page, Marketing, Social Enterprise, Values Comments Off on “We Aren’t the World” – Required Reading Before Going Global

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