Opinion: Psychology’s bias toward rich Western societies limits findings


A Shuar mother feeds her baby in the rainforest in Amazonian Ecuador. PHOTO/David DUCOIN/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Both nature and nurture affect personality. But behavioral studies don’t fully sample the world’s many societies.

In the field of psychology, the image is canon: a child sitting in front of a marshmallow, resisting the temptation to eat it. If she musters up the willpower to resist long enough, she’ll be rewarded when the experimenter returns with a second marshmallow. Using this “marshmallow test,” the Austrian-born psychologist Walter Mischel demonstrated that children who could resist immediate gratification and wait for a second marshmallow went on to greater achievements in life. They did better in school, had better SAT scores, and even managed their stress more skillfully.

Mischel’s pioneering studies at Stanford in California and later at Columbia University in New York had a profound impact on both professional and popular understandings of patience, its origins, and its role in our lives. People reasoned from these studies of the 1970s and ’80s that there must be some deep individual characteristic, some personality feature, that set kids up for higher achievements throughout life. But what if that wasn’t the right conclusion to draw from these studies?

What if patience, and maybe other personality features too, are more a product of where we are than who we are?

When trying to study the relationship between the environment and our personality characteristics, researchers face two big challenges.

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