Thinking Like an Anthropologist from Mars: Crucial for Good Human Science

Don’t worry, just as I promised you recently that the odds of an all-out zombie apocalypse are very low, I seriously doubt that there are any anthropologists from Mars among our ranks. This said, as a behavioral scientist, I think it may actually be very useful to think like an anthropologist from Mars. And this blog explains why!

One day a year, at the Chhath festival along the banks of the Ganges in India, millions of Hindi people descend into the river in a huge-scale religious ceremony. Commenting on this event a few years back in a keynote address at the 2006 meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, renowned philosopher Dan Dennett said this: “If you were an anthropologist from Mars, you’d need to explain this!” In the context of Dennett’s talk, he was using this enormous investment of behavior from millions of people to underscore how deeply entrenched religiosity is in our species – it’s so deep, that any anthropologist from Mars would definitely take a look at this event along the banks of the Ganges would be like, “Hey Glurb, come check THIS out – this is something!”

Typically given credit to renowned neuroglogist Oliver Sacks (1996), this phrase (anthropologist form Mars) so deeply characterizes the approach that evolutionary psychologists take to human behavior. And here’s how:

Often times, behavioral and social scientists try to explain human behavior by what we in the field call “self-report” – asking people to describe why they are doing what they are doing. Well, it turns out, that sometimes people know why they do what they do, but, often, actually, people have no clue why they do what they do (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Not only did Nisbett and Wilson document that people often are clueless as to the causes of their behavior but, interestingly, these researchers also documented that people easily come up with reasons (whether accurate or not) for their own behavior. For instance, in one study, when a group of participants watched a movie (that was well-received by a control group) with a constant loud noise, participants in this condition reported despising the movie – and easily coming up with any and all explanations for their reports (such as bad directing, bad acting, etc.) – with this important footnote: None of the participants reported that they disliked the move due to the extraneous and distracting noise form the hallway!

Good behavioral scientists need to step back a bit from relying on self-reported data. In other words, a good behavioral scientist takes on the role of the anthropologist from Mars. Such an approach to the scientific study of behavior has some important implications, such as:

–       Make few or no assumptions about what you’ll observe or the underlying causes of what you observe (remember, you’re new to this planet and this species you’re studying is VERY complex!)

–       Don’t worry too much about asking humans why they are doing what they are doing (you speak Martian and they speak something else, in any case!)

–       Study behavior and behavioral patterns – objectively – scientifically – allowing the data and whatever well-supported theories you and your Martian buddies have come up with help you understand both (a) WHAT you’re observing and (b) why these strange critters are doing what they are doing.

Getting back to the millions of people jumping into the Ganges that Dennett talked about in 2006, we can think about using self-report data – but we’d probably only get so far. Responses may be something like “my family always does this,” “it’s a significant religious ritual that I take part in each year,” and so forth. But the anthropologist from Mars can’t communicate with these millions of individuals – so he (or she … or it!) needs to step back and examine the behavioral patterns objectively. What are the immediate antecedents of this ritual? What are the physical benefits that come out of this ritual? What are the social or behavioral changes that generally follow from this ritual?

Dennett, a dyed-in-the-wool evolutionist (Dennett, 1996), suggests that anthropologists from Mars would reasonably take an evolutionary approach to understanding behavior – examining the ancestral environments of individuals and how behaviors shown now would have had adaptive benefits then. More simply, a good anthropologist from Mars would likely consider benefits of behaviors in an important sense (or, in the language of evolutionary psychology, he or she (or it) would address how behavioral patterns demonstrate long-term adaptive benefits).

A good behavioral scientist is, in essence, playing the role of anthropologist from Mars. In taking such an alien approach, you’re studying human behavior from a stepped-back perspective – an approach that allows you to:

  1. Be relatively objective – divorced from your own preconceived view of the world.
  2. Be open to the importance of applying an evolutionary approach to understanding human behavior (being inclined to ask the big “Why?” questions when studying our own kind – such as “Why was this now-species-typical behavioral pattern adaptive for the ancestors of these complex critters?”).

 

… and, perhaps most importantly, the anthropologist from Mars approach allows a good behavioral scientist to …

 

  1. Drop your value judgments about human behavior and its causes at the door of your lab. I promise that they’ll be there when you’re done with work for the day and are ready to go home! Remember, you’re not really a Martian, you’re human just like the rest of us, after all!

References

Dennett, D. (1996). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster (reprint edition).

Nisbett, R. & T. Wilson (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-259

Sacks, O. (1996). An anthropologist from Mars: Seven paradoxical tales. New York: Vintage.

 

This Blog is cross-posted at my Psychology Today Blog, Darwin’s Subterranean World

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
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