Thomas Crampton

Social Media in China and across Asia

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?

Fishtank study:

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.

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View Comments for “David Brooks: China Collectivism trumps US Individualism”

  • Grace

    really interesting studies.. :)

  • Really interesting article... I like the debate.

  • Regardless of the impressiveness of a state driven opening ceremony (prettied up by the expulsion of all 'unwanted persons' from the olympic area), the important thing is to remember that collectivism is amoral in that it denies the individual his/her right to life. Without protection of individual property rights there is no individual right to life. This is the SAME morality of the savage tribe that sacrifices the virgin to 'the gods' for a good harvest for the tribe. The moral improvement came when a group of political thinkers attempted to protect the individual's right to life from other men, the government, and 'society' as a whole. *That* was the USA. Sadly, we see the moral savagery of collectivism poisoning our country more and more. In the end, collectivism always means that the lives and efforts of some men are forfeit to other men. Men and women are NOT means, and to treat them as such is evil. This is not altered by a pretty show put on by what is still a savage tribe of slaves.

  • mark simon

    Brooks is out here again, speaking today in Hong Kong to Asia Society. Would be nice to know who is paying for the trip. If it is on the dime of Asia Society, which is run by pro-china money. You don't get the free ride out unless you carry their water.
    --
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    The real story is another Westerner coming out, getting stroked by the Chinese, and see's all the good in China and all the bad in the West?
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    Notice how China wins all the medals that are not "free market" based, in other words sports commies excel with. Good on some of their athletes for some wins. But look at that girls gymnastics team... 16???? Then look at the defense the Chinese are putting up

  • Language Log pretty much demolishes the fishtank and cow/hay studies here.

  • I read David Brooks' column as being a deliberate oversimplification -- but intriguing nonetheless.

    It made me think about the excitement in the U.S. and the Western world about what's new in Web 2.0: collaboration! community! the power of the group!

    Not really so new, is it?

  • It all sounds deterministic, reeking of prior works ranging from "The Bell Curve" to Mills' "The Power Elite." One fallacy is the implicit assumption that Chinese social characteristics aren't undergoing huge change as they respond to outside influences. Another is that all Asians - or even Chinese - are alike, when in truth this is the most culturally diverse region on the planet. Finally, you could make corresponding arguments for the virtues of individualistic cultures. Silicon Valley, anyone?

  • Yannick

    Well, i sure like that final jab, at least! But I would target it at Singapore instead, since they actually _achieved_ that state...

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