Individualism & collectivism

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Self-centered cultures narrow your viewpoint:

Chinese students would immediately understand which wooden block to move – the one visible to both them and the director. Their US counterparts, however, did not always catch on.

“They would ask ‘Which block?’ or ‘You mean the one on the right?”, explains Keysar. “For me it was really stunning because all of the information is there. You don’t need to ask,” he adds.

While 65% of the American participants asked this type of question, only one of the 20 Chinese subjects did so, equating to just 5%.

This comes close to the classic “they did a study on that?” criticism of psychology. Of course we know that East Asians cultures emphasize a contextual perception of self and collectivist values vis-a-vis Western ones. But, it is nice to get a quantitative sense of the extent of this difference. You can read the full paper on the author’s website. Here is an important point:

In fact, language can trigger a culture – bound representation of self…bicultural Chinese-born individuals tended to describe themselves in terms of their own attributes when writing in English, but to describe themselves in relation to other people when writing in Chinese.

This shouldn’t surprise you if you read Geography of Thought. It seems people can be easily “trained” to change their vantage points (casting some light on the grand claims made by the author in the aforementioned book). The facultative nature of these extreme differences seems pretty obvious; especially given that extreme individualism manifest in English speaking peoples in particular, while continental Europeans tend to lay between the East Asian collectivism and Anglo-Saxon collectivism despite their far closer genetic affinity to the latter. Nevertheless, though the extremity of the differences in operation of Theory of Mind here is likely cultural, I can not be suspect that there might small, but significant, initial differences between populations. After all, Jerome Kagan has shown that personality differences exist between Asian and European infants at very young ages, as well as between blue-eyed and brown-eyed children (in both cases the former tend to be more withdrawn and inhibited than the latter). The question that comes to my mind is whether the cultural differences selected for different personality profiles, or whether there were initially difference personality profiles which resulted in different cultural outcomes. My own suspicion in the East Asian case is the former.

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35 Comments

  1. In the experiment, psychologists Boaz Keysar and Shali Wu at the University of Chicago, Illinois, US, recruited 40 students. Half of the volunteers were non-Asians who had grown up in the US, and the other half were native Mandarin speakers who had very recently emigrated from various parts of China. 
     
    Hmmm, is this a joke? Did they check Chinese people raised in the US? Did they administer IQ test? 
     
    What is there to disprove the alternative that the Chinese subjects were more intelligent, on average, than the non-Chinese, and therefor more likely to recognize that in some cases there were blocks the experimenter could not see?

  2. “All subjects were University of Chicago students.” 
     
    do think that chinese university chicago students are that much smarter than american students? did you check to see the SAT diff. between foreign nationals from china and the white U of C student?

  3. do think that chinese university chicago students are that much smarter than american students? did you check to see the SAT diff. between foreign nationals from china and the white U of C student? 
     
    Do they practice affirmative action admissions at UoC?

  4.  
    Do they practice affirmative action admissions at UoC?
     
     
    how am i supposed to know? am i your personal researcher? seriously, here is a recommendation for a GNXP reader: got questions, don’t expect the posters (who spend time generating content) to do your own leg work for you all the time. get it? let me do a little preparatory thinking for you since you find the task onerous. 
     
    1) one assumes that asian students, whether international or non-international (some of these chinese could be recent immigrants) exhibit some superiority vis-a-vis g in relation to the non-asians because of the different standards applied. 
     
    2) that being said, is the extent of the differences going to be great enough to explain this sort performance variation across the two groups? 
     
    3) one can easily look up the % of students of various races at U of Chic, and probably infer the general range of SAT scores extrapolating the median. one can generate a quick & dirty model. i know, i’ve done this for lazy readers who seem mystified by the prospect of doing some basic algebraic manipulations in the service of their questions.  
     
    4) there is also a background literature (copiously cited the freely available paper for literates) which scaffolds these questions, and that literature implies that american raised asians tend cluster with non-asians on these psychological tends in direct proportion to date of immigration (e.g., those who immigrated during their teenage years tend to exhibit more asian patterns of response than those who immigrated much earlier).

  5. If someone gave me an instruction, and the statement was ambiguous because of information the other person didn’t possess, I’d let them know about the situation and ask for clarification. 
     
    If I thought the person in question DID know the information, that would make the instruction even more ambiguous. If they knew there were two blocks, it’s not immediately obvious that they would refer only to the one they could see. 
     
    It seems to me that the study’s conclusions are overreaching.

  6. If someone gave me an instruction, and the statement was ambiguous because of information the other person didn’t possess, I’d let them know about the situation and ask for clarification. 
     
    That was my thought too. It seems weirdly passive-aggressive (or something) to follow instructions that are ambiguous in a way in which you “know” you won’t get caught. 
     
    Maybe it’s really a test of people’s attitudes toward authority?

  7. If someone gave me an instruction, and the statement was ambiguous because of information the other person didn’t possess, I’d let them know about the situation and ask for clarification. 
     
    Exactly. I would be tempted to interpret this as evidence Americans don’t necessarily take instructions as for granted as the Chinese. It isn’t so much evidence of self-centered behavior as it is consideration for the exact wishes of the other person.

  8. I reckon this is more about the psychology of foreign students, than Chinese people in particular.  
     
    Perhaps US-born students in Chinese universities would show the same behavior.

  9. This indicates Chinese culture is not ideal for democracy. Confucious ruling is better for them.

  10. NERD: “Confucean” democracies exist and are quite successful. Taiwan and Hong Kong are the obvious examples, but Japan, South Korea, etc. could be classified as “confucean” in the sense you seem to take it (respect of authority, elders, traditions, etc.) To indulge in wild conjectures, China will probably end up into some kind of “centralised” democracy too at some point. Democracy need not imply perpetual rebellion (unless of course you happen to be French).

  11. From the story: 
     
    “The director would then ask the subject to ‘move the wooden block to a higher square in the grid.’ 
     
    “Chinese students would immediately understand which wooden block to move ? the one visible to both them and the director. Their US counterparts, however, did not always catch on. 
     
    “‘They would ask “Which block?” or “You mean the one on the right?”,’ explains Keysar. ‘For me it was really stunning because all of the information is there. You don’t need to ask,’ he adds.” 
     
    Hold on a minute. The direction is intentionally ambiguous. Keysar’s statement is completely bogus, mocking tone and all. As reported, “all of the information” is not there. The director knows there are two blocks, because he (or his associates) set up the grid! So when he fails to specify which one he wishes the subject to move, that properly draws a question. 
     
    This experiment may reveal nothing more than Chinese students’ imperfect fluency in English. To get valid experimental results, the director should have given orders to the Chinese students in Mandarin or Cantonese, as appropriate. 
     
    Consider that there is no simple equivalence between English articles and Mandarin’s constructions of similar function. 
     
    Perhaps in China, English learners often fail to master the distinction between definite and indefinite articles in English–I really don’t know (and it wouldn’t imply any want of intelligence). If a Chinese subject hears “move a wooden block,” then he might choose the one visible to the director just to make his obedience more obvious. 
     
    I can think of many other explanations for this behaviour which the reported experimental design does not rule out. 
     
    The researchers should be ashamed of themselves (either for designing a poor experiment, or for explaining it so poorly to the reporter).

  12. Okay, I’m an idiot. I didn’t read the study carefully enough to see that they did give instructions in Mandarin. I won’t bother to quibble over the translational details, since I don’t speak Mandarin! 
     
    For all of that, I still don’t think they’ve discovered what they think they have, and perhaps I’ll try to explain that when I’ve a little more time. 
     
    Sorry, Razib.

  13.  
    Sorry, Razib.
     
     
    no worries as long as you catch your error ;-)

  14. Taiwan and Hong Kong are the obvious examples, but Japan, South Korea, etc. could be classified as “confucean”  
     
    hong kong was never a real democracy until right before china absorbed it from what i recall. taiwan and south korea have democracies which are only a few decades old from what i recall. japan is a better example, though in some ways japan is far less confucian than south korea or taiwan (more power has always been resident in non-familial organizations and loyalties).

  15. This U of Chicago test is an obvious test of empathy and would actually be a good way to test candidates for field sales positions (say a technology or business services B to B type company).  
     
    In sales, you have to identify with the customer and what they want, which requires that you think like the customer. If the candidate flunks this empathy test, you reject them from consideration for the position for being bull-headed.

  16. Razza – Hong Kong has never been any kind of democracy, real or otherwise – not under the British, not now, not ever. It has never had universal suffrage, and has always had an ‘executive-led’ government (i.e. appointed head of government, and appointed secretaries, who equate to government ministers in terms of policy making), including right up to the stroke of midnight on 30 June 1997. 
     
    It has some elected members of the legislative council – some are elected in geographical constituencies and some in ‘functional’ constituencies (i.e. professions), but the only actual political power they have is to be able to deny finance to the government if they can muster the necessary numbers in the lower house, which they have never been able to do. In other words, the only elected politicians at best form the ‘opposition’ in the lower house, and the equivalent of the upper house comprises all appointees. 
     
    That doesn’t make it a bad place necessarily, but them’s the facts.

  17. In any case, I’m always fascinated by differences between perception and reality. The reality may be that in so called collectivist societies, everyone is flat out taking care of number one, fiddling the system and trying to screw the other guy, while paying lip service to collectivist ideals, while in individualistic societies, many people may be prompted by altruistic motives, conscience or peer pressure to ‘do the right thing’ in a social context, and so end up acting in a less self-centred and more collectivist way than the collectivists. I’m being the Devil’s advocate, obviously, but you get the point. Marked differences in cultural niceties may not be reflected in internal thought processes, motivation or outcomes, they’re just gloss.  
     
    So the answer could well be that a higher percentage of the Chinese students were far more adept at giving the ‘director’ the answer they construed that he wanted to hear, while a higher percentage of the home grown students were more concerned about puzzling out and arriving at the right answer, whether that was what the ‘director’ wanted to hear or not. That could have less to do with being self-centred and more to do with being motivated to arrive at the truth than to impress the questioner.  
     
    The findings may have more to do with different perceptions of what was needed to ‘pass the test’ and nothing to do with empathy or self-absorption at all.

  18. Conformity is rule for East Asian. Such psychological profile prevent creativity or discovery in East Asian culture despite their high IQ.  
     
    The same analogy can be said about that dutch height was not materialized into baskeball talents. 
     
    Most East Asian nobel prize winners are often living in Western culture or Westernized Asian culture. East Asian’s IQ is like undiscovered oil under ground until some one know how to use it.

  19. This study shows that Chinese rather comform with director than let director discover the truth. The truth and findings are will never be known by others.

  20. Like coin has both sides. Politically, there are people will never bother to put themself into other’s shoes, which often lead to disaster’s war and bad policy due to lack of understanding.

  21. I was actually very much intrigued by Mark Seecof’s observations above. The English articles “a” and “the” are hard to translate back and forth into Mandarin. I’m in China right now teaching English, and I can testify (as I’m sure others can) that the Chinese definitely have a hard time mastering their usage.  
     
    I’d really like to see the English vs. Mandarin instructions side-by-side. If, for example, the English were “Move the red car”, then the only Chinese I can think of would be either the equivalent of “Move a red car” or Move that red car”, either of which tends to reduce the ambiguity problem. 
     
    Hold on a minute. The direction is intentionally ambiguous. Keysar’s statement is completely bogus, mocking tone and all. As reported, “all of the information” is not there. 
     
    This complaint was bang-on, I think.

  22. Hold on a minute. The direction is intentionally ambiguous. Keysar’s statement is completely bogus, mocking tone and all. As reported, “all of the information” is not there. The director knows there are two blocks, because he (or his associates) set up the grid! So when he fails to specify which one he wishes the subject to move, that properly draws a question. 
    no. the report mentions that the subjects were given the impression that the directors were also naive subjects. if the real subjects had that impression, it should be obvious which blocks to move.

  23. We can probably expect IQ to be similar, but previous studies should lead us to expect a higher visuo-spatial IQ among the East Asians. This could be enough to explain the difference. East Asians are more likely to think visually and picture what the other person can see. Caucasians will be more analytical and insist that there is insufficient information to decide on which block to move.

  24. Mark, 
     
    Having studied the semantics of definite articles, and studying Korean at present, I share your concerns about manner of reference in these two languages. (No time right now to check the study, but I will.) It strikes me that if the director were to use the demonstrative “that” rather than the definite article (i.e., “Move that wooden block upward”), I would tend to assume that he had a visual line on it, and hence not question which block was meant. Naturally Mandarin has demonstratives, and if these were used as the methodological equivalent of the English definite article, I would have a real problem there. I’ll check it out and get back to ya.

  25. If we can assume that intelligence is partially genetic, is it safe to assume that creativity and personality is partially genetic also? Being east asian myself, I notice that on average east asians tend to be less social and more collectivistic, even families that have been here for generations. It is not something a lot of asians like to admit, because shyness is considered non-masculine in Western culture, and the possible link between individualism and creativity, so many will say these traits are due to nurture. At the same time, the same people will proudly say their intelligence is due to genetics (which is probably true). What hypocricy!! So all of our positive stereotypes are due to nature and all or our negative stereotypes are due to nurture and media conspiracy?

  26. Some random wierdo is a perfect example of what I was talking about. Ironically, any Asian with an ounce of self-esteem who can admit these differences is considered a self-hater. Pssh.

  27. Some random wierdo is a perfect example of what I was talking about. 
    That’s a stretch! I just re-read his posts above, and he (or she) raises some valid questions. What makes you think he’s even asian? Or are their other posts/comments of his (on other threads) that I’m not aware of? I admit I rarely read the comments on this blog.

  28. ^^  
     
    Yeah actually I skimmed his post. Looked at it again after I posted, and realized I misread it. That was my bad.

  29. I notice practically all the studies that show East = collectivist, West = individualist use mainly American or Western European as the “west” and Chinese, Japanese etc. as the “east”, 
     
    but how come I rarely see comparisons about Middle Eastern, Indian or South Asians etc.. would these cultures fall in line alongside the Chinese in the eastern/holistic/collectivist type?

  30. I notice practically all the studies that show East = collectivist, West = individualist use mainly American or Western European as the “west” and Chinese, Japanese etc. as the “east”, 
     
    but how come I rarely see comparisons about Middle Eastern, Indian or South Asians etc.. would these cultures fall in line alongside the Chinese in the eastern/holistic/collectivist type?

  31. I notice, based on my friends, that Indians tend to be a little more collective then your average Westerner. Of course, I have no source to prove this, but this is my experience. I also notice that certain Caucasian-American ethinic groups, such as the Irish or Italians, tend to be more ethnically conscious then your average white American. Ethnic pride can be a sign of collectiveness. Does anyone have a source on personality differences between American ethnic groups? I doubt there are any, but any information would be good. 
     
    Speaking of creativity, it seems that Jews not only have high IQs, but they seem to be very creative as well. I hope to see studies on creative differences between Jews and Europeans, though I suspect Jews are more creative.

  32. Also, it seems that many people on this site are supporters of Eugenics. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about indiviudal differences in IQ then group differences if that is the case? After all, Eugenicists believe breeding high IQ people will raise the average IQ of a society. I would be more interested in IQ and personality differences looking at family histories or surnames.

  33. ^^^ I would be more interested in looking at family differences in IQ and personality rather then group differences.

  34. Of course minority ethnic groups within the USA are going to appear more collectivist than the mainstream ethnic majority. It’s a group defence/support mechanism and clustering together of culturally/linguistically/phenotypically more similar individuals. Check out Australians of European descent in London. Earl’s Court used to be called Kangaroo Valley. 
     
    If you really want to compare ethnic collectivism/individualism, you should compare Americans of European descent in America with Chinese in China, Koreans in Korea, Japanese in Japan, Indians in India, Italians in Italy, Greeks in Greece, etc. 
     
    If you do that, I predict you will find that e.g. Chinese collectivist obligations in an essentially wholly Chinese society are toward the family and are notably lacking toward society as a whole in comparison to say Americans of European descent, whereas European-Americans may feel less familial obligation, particularly outside of the nuclear family.

  35. The thing is I wonder if groups like Italians, Spanish, Greeks, Indians etc. would also be collectivist, but falling in between the Far Eastern groups and the Western groups (I’m talking about in terms of Individualism vs. Collectivism, Independence vs. Interdependence). 
    I’ve read Geography of Thought and they touched on this (very briefly).  
    However most of the time, I just hear about a duality, like “Far East vs. West”. 
    But in actuality, there are so many ethnic groups in between “West” and “East” that It would be nice to see many countries/cultures compared (perhaps even ranked, say which ones are most collectivist, which ones are least).

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