David Brooks: China Collectivism trumps US Individualism
Aug 12, 2008
After witnessing the Olympic opening ceremony, David Brooks has a column in today’s New York Times concluding that China’s collectivism will trump US individualism.
In addition to what he saw at the opening ceremony Brooks cites scientific studies comparing Chinese and US thinking.
Be great to see the source material for the below assertions (UPDATE BELOW: SOUNDS LIKE ALL EAST ASIANS WERE GROUPED IN THE STUDY.). They sound quite 1950s. Would China’s newer generations give the same answers?
If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.
Cow, Chicken and Hay study
When the psychologist Richard Nisbett showed Americans individual pictures of a chicken, a cow and hay and asked the subjects to pick out the two that go together, the Americans would usually pick out the chicken and the cow. They’re both animals. Most Asian people, on the other hand, would pick out the cow and the hay, since cows depend on hay. Americans are more likely to see categories. Asians are more likely to see relationships.
Why do some societies turn collectivist?
some scientists have theorized that it all goes back to microbes. Collectivist societies tend to pop up in parts of the world, especially around the equator, with plenty of disease-causing microbes. In such an environment, you’d want to shun outsiders, who might bring strange diseases, and enforce a certain conformity over eating rituals and social behavior.
Collectivism will triumph! (Where is the study for this one?)
For one thing, there are relatively few individualistic societies on earth. For another, the essence of a lot of the latest scientific research is that the Western idea of individual choice is an illusion and the Chinese are right to put first emphasis on social contexts.
Final anti-dictatorship jab:
The ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream. It’s certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.
UPDATE: James Fallows strongly disagrees with Brooks’ column.
UPDATE: Thanks Free 2 Fail for making link to Richard Nisbett’s Geography of Thought, How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. Review of the book after the jump.
Also, a Feb 2006 article on Asian-American Psychology from American Psychological Association.
Review of the book from Publisher’s Weekly:
This book may mark the beginning of a new front in the science wars. Nisbett, an eminent psychologist and co-author of a seminal Psychological Review paper on how people talk about their decision making, reports on some of his latest work in cultural psychology. He contends that “[h]uman cognition is not everywhere the same”-that those brought up in Western and East Asian cultures think differently from one another in scientifically measurable ways. Such a contention pits his work squarely against evolutionary psychology (as articulated by Steven Pinker and others) and cognitive science, which assume all appreciable human characteristics are “hard wired.” Initial chapters lay out the traditional differences between Aristotle and Confucius, and the social practices that produced (and have grown out of) these differing “homeostatic approaches” to the world: Westerners tend to inculcate individualism and choice (40 breakfast cereals at the supermarket), while East Asians are oriented toward group relations and obligations (“the tall poppy is cut down” remains a popular Chinese aphorism). Next, Nisbett presents his actual experiments and data, many of which measure reaction times in recalling previously shown objects. They seem to show East Asians (a term Nisbett uses as a catch-all for Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and others) measurably more holistic in their perceptions (taking in whole scenes rather than a few stand-out objects). Westerners, or those brought up in Northern European and Anglo-Saxon-descended cultures, have a “tunnel-vision perceptual style” that focuses much more on identifying what’s prominent in certain scenes and remembering it. Writing dispassionately yet with engagement, Nisbett explains the differences as “an inevitable consequence of using different tools to understand the world.” If his explanation turns out to be generally accepted, it means a big victory for memes in their struggle with genes.