Emory Report
October 4, 2004
Volume 57, Number 7


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October 4 , 2004
Disciplines cross in Henrich studies of human behavior

BY eric rangus

Joseph Henrich has spent most of his professional career conducting research in some pretty far-off places: the rainforests of South America and Papua New Guinea, the steppes of Mongolia, and the remote South Pacific island of Fiji, for example.

Where Henrich goes, there are no telephones, no televisions, no newspapers, but some very important people have kept an eye on what he has been up to. Last month, Henrich, assistant professor of anthropology, earned a 2004 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Given to fewer than 60 scholars, the award is the highest national honor for investigators in the early stage of their careers.

A cultural anthropologist, Henrich crosses a lot of disciplinary boundaries in his research. While his work touches on aspects of economics, psychology, sociology, environmental studies and education, at its core is the use of cultural and genetic evolutionary models to develop theories about psychology. It’s
an area he first explored in the 1990s as a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, when he visited the Amazon basin in Peru to study the Machiguenga tribe.

“I was interested in economic development,” said Henrich, an Emory faculty member since 2002. “But when I started trying to do economic anthropology and think about how to improve approaches to economic development—stopping deforestation, things like that—I found that the theories were so poor that you couldn’t do much. So I became more interested in theoretical development and how people make economic decisions, as well as how growing up in a particular place affects what goes into your economic decision-making.”

A prime example of Henrich’s research is a separate NSF-funded study that looks at the behavioral economics of 15 small-scale societies. He is a principal investigator and editor of a book on the project, Foundations of Human Sociality: Ethnography and Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies (Oxford University Press, 2004).

One experiment Henrich administered on the Peruvian Machiguenga had to do with these theories on economic development. A volunteer was given a sum of money equal to two days’ pay. He was free to offer any part to another participant. If the “receiver” accepted the offer, each person received those amounts. If the receiver turned it down, neither one got anything.

The data showed first players offered between 15 and 25 percent of the pot; receivers almost always accepted even if the offer was below 15 percent, meaning that both were rewarded. When the same experiment is conducted with university students, the first player offers more—between 30 and 40 percent—but responders generally reject anything below 20 percent.

“The question is, are the patterns we see about university students something we see about humans, or something about Americans, or something just about students,” Henrich said, noting that the results show the Machiguenga’s economic decisions tended to be driven by self-interest, matching the traditional economic model.

For Henrich’s current research, he remains focused on isolated, less-advanced communities, but his theories are aimed more at cultural learning: what children do to acquire their ideas, values and beliefs. This work took him to the Fijian villages of Teci and Dalomo this past spring to find out.

Specifically he looked at how Fijian children acquire the knowledge needs to become successful marine foragers—how to identify poisonous fish, when to harvest certain fish and what are the behavioral patterns of the fish they catch. It’s knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation, and that method is what Henrich wants to uncover. He will return to Fiji next June and hopes to spend the following year in the field.

Henrich has a lot of ideas about how to utilize the five years of funding that accompany his new NSF award. Not only will it cover his research in Fiji, but he also wants to use some of the money to create a program in culture and cognition at Emory. To make this idea a reality, Henrich soon will develop classes as well as design a lab to train students in field and analytical research methods.

“The goal is to bring in a lot of tools from other disciplines,” said Henrich, who is well under way in developing the project. “We’ll bring in experiments and other sophisticated forms of statistical analysis into anthropology, along with its traditional focus of ethnography.”

Henrich currently is working on two projects with psychology’s Philippe Rochat, and another effort that includes postdoctoral student Sarah Brosnan is a comparison of prosocial behavior in chimpanzees and human children.

Finally, Henrich and his wife Natalie, an adjunct assistant professor in anthropology, have just completed a book, The Origins of Cooperation, to be published later this year.

Running through it all is the wide range of disciplines that influence his work. In fact, after earning his doctorate, Henrich was offered faculty positions not only in anthropology but economics and psychology, as well.

“If you are building an interdisciplinary approach to human behavior,” he said, “it should be unclear what you are.”