I had a conversation with Elina Halonen not too long ago. We talked about the Dutch Behavioural Science Network (DBSN), their blog and the interviews Elina was doing on there with influential Dutch Behavioural Scientists, which I think is great.
What else did we discuss? Well, we spend most of it trying to understand why all your research is American or at least heavily American focused. Given that we’re both European, and there’s several other continents it seemed a bit, well, unnecessary?
Now sure, there’s many great researchers and institutions in America, so it’s not surprising that America has a stake, if not even a large stake in the research community, in our case specifically the behavioural science community, but still. It’s stake way outweighs the amount of people and locations in them, as compared to the rest of the world.
Without diving into reasons why this is (cultural hegemony, neocolonialism, anyone?) there are important repercussions for having a research domain that is grounded in human decision-making, a field which heavily relies on nature and nurture. Nature ranging from genetics, epi-genetics, biology, chemistry and neuroscience. Nurture ranging from upbringing, environment, socio-economic class and culture.
In Social Psychology, there are endless disciplines of study that focus on culture and the impact it can have on (almost) everything. But as soon as you leave social psychology, this emphasis on culture disappears. But when looking at behaviour, nurture, which is massively influenced by culture, plays a massive role. So, why do we seem to think it holds no place when it comes to behavioural science?
I specifically look into behavioural finance (payment methods) and how people relate to different kinds of money. Well, Europe has seen a massive surge in contactless payments (so have Canada and Australia and Asia, btw.) yet the States haven’t. As such, there’s almost no research (thanks guys…). But my annoyance doesn’t stop there.
A lot of American literature focusses on how people invest, because in the States it’s quite common for most households to hold stocks. It’s part of the American dream, to be able to move up in life, become rich, through hard work and smart investments.
Unsurprisingly, the American dream doesn’t go much beyond it’s borders, and the effects remain within their culture. The drive to be involved in the market, hold stocks, dream about amassing a fortune through speculation or “playing” the stock market is a mentality that isn’t held in most of Europe. It’s not even as widely held and practiced in the Netherlands (my home), a rich and relatively well-educated and financially literate country.
It’s not just the investor mentality that is well researched in America, but not beyond. Maybe even more important is how people relate to wealth. In psychology, behavioural finance, behavioural economics and regular finance and economics you can find plenty of papers on how people accumulate and relate to debt. These papers mainly have their samples in America and are done in that cultural context. Big surprise: almost no culture relates to debt like the Americans do.
Conspicuous consumption is key in America, with all negative consequences amassing quietly like interest on a maxed out credit card (or ten). Credit card grows each year, beating every annual record year after year. But that isn't a reflection of what's happening on a global scale.
Now this paper isn’t me whining about their being little research done in Europe. Also, there’s a lot of European based research done, but it doesn’t seem to get the same promotion and exposure as American research does. This can be blamed on the editorial boards of most major journals being predominantly American (vicious cycle this one), or the fact that most Americans seem to be born salesmen, but that’s a story for another time.
I’m also not urging the research community to rush to the Netherlands, or Europe in general, to see if all robust effects replicate (unless you want to, in that case, please do come). But you should at least ask yourself, if I take this effect out of a specific context, and yes, American culture is a very specific context (although they may assume it’s the default…), will it still work? If I take this out of America, will this still replicate?
I hold no hope for American policies being copied and pasted onto Europe, or even worse: Asia. Who thought that was a good idea, honestly?!
If you’re American, or your research is, just imagine any other context from the one you’ve tested in. Your home, your parent’s home, a country you have visited a lot and know a lot about. Any other culture you can think of and ask yourself: “Would this replicate here?”
In my case, as I look out over fields of tulips, surrounded by windmills and clogs, smoking six joints at the same time (it’s a joke), I ask myself: “Would this replicate in the Netherlands?”
And for a lot of questions and research I find myself doubting it very much, repressing the urge to scream “No it f*ng wouldn’t!”
If you too are tired of the predominantly American focus in Behavioural Science, please do your research into non-American behavioural scientists. I have interviewed quite a few on here, and Elina will be hosting an upcoming interview series with Dutch Behavioural Scientists on the DBSN blog. Make sure to check that out!