Cultural differences are Vodoo correlations: I beg to differ

Normally, I am delighted to read a new Ed Yong NERS blog post, and this article not only was published in New Scientist, but was also whole heartedly endorsed by Vaughan , again a person I admire the most.  Yet, I cannot hide my dismay over the fallacies that Ed commits and the muddled and biased thinking he displays- I can admire the moralistic stand from which he tries to interpret the recent findings with the conclusion that “But instead of dividing the world along cultural lines, we might be better off recognising and cultivating our cognitive flexibility.” and I whole heartedly agree with that conclusion, but one need not nullify cultural differences to achieve the same objective of more cultural/ethnic tolerance and proactive re-wiring of what may be ‘human / individual/ cultural nature’.

So, instead of dwelling on the moralistic aspect of the whole debate, let me get to the science part directly. Some of it may seem nit-picking, but others have profound implications.

AS A SPECIES, we possess remarkably little genetic variation, yet we tend to overlook this homogeneity and focus instead on differences between groups and individuals.

The first fallacy Ed commits is to implicitly link any individual / group differences with genetic variation. Genetic variation need not be,and is not,the be-all and end-all of individual / group differences. Let us focus on an individual trait like intelligence or say the personality dimension of neuroticism for an individual for the rest of this article and we can easily extend the arguments to other individual/ group differences. It is standard practice nowadays,to admit the crucial role of epigenetics, development, social environment or Nurture along with Nature to explain any complex phenomenon like Intelligence or Neuroticism. Thus while my IQ or temperament may be partly inherited (inherited again does’nt mean genetics alone, it includes shared environment factors), it is also partly under the influence of non-shared environmental factors and partly expressed uniquely for each individual depending on idiosyncratic individual factors or random variation. Thus, some of the individual differences in two persons for intelligence/ neuroticism will be due to genetics, but most of it would be due to environmental influences(including social/ cultural factors) and some of it would be ‘undetermined’ by either genetics or environment, but be random/due to luck/chance/history factors.

Perhaps Ed chose a wrong opening line, but that doesn’t negate his thesis, or does it? We’ll get to that , but remember that Personality psychology based on studying both individual differences , as well as finding human universals, has a long tradition and is a worthy field of study- if only because personality is not a myth- individual differences exists , are consistent and can be reliably assessed and have profound implications for our day-to-day interaction, or in more clinical settings.

Before I proceed let me first list my points of agreements- I agree with Ed that media always sensationalizes findings and stereotypes the cultures involved, sometimes overextending or over interpreting the actual study findings, there is no such thing as an ‘Eastern’ and a ‘Western’ culture- I’ll be more happy talking about nation-state based cultures like the Indian culture, the Chinese culture, the Japanese culture and the American culture; I agree that studies have only looked at China , Japan, Us and some western countries and generalized and caricatured it as Eastern and Western Culture; that there is an either-or dichotomy between Analytical and holistic thinking styles – but they are more on a continuum. Now to points of disagreements.

Psychologists have conducted a wealth of experiments that seem to support popular notions that easterners have a holistic world view, rooted in philosophical and religious traditions such as Taoism and Confucianism, while westerners tend to think more analytically, as befits their philosophical heritage of reductionism, utilitarianism and so on. However, the most recent research suggests that these popular stereotypes are far too simplistic. It is becoming apparent that we are all capable of thinking both holistically and analytically – and we are starting to understand what makes individuals flip between the two modes of thought.

A study that shows that we are capable of both analytical and holistic mods of though does not negate the fact that their could still be important and significant individual/group diffrences for the same. Consider Neuroticsm- if someone, in particular, and we in general, are capable of exhibiting behavior/ emotional states that are the opposite of characteristic neurotic traits, it doesn’t negate the fact that one can still have persons who exhibit abnormally high levels of Neuroticism. Nowhere is it claimed that someone with high trait neuroticism cannot display flexibility under proper environmental conditions- or that the behavior is totally independent of the situation- we gain go back to Miscels debate of how much situation and how much traits are responsible for behavior- but the fact of cognitive flexibility does not negate the existence of stable traits or tendencies. Consider a low IQ person- he may display intelligence under some situations and not display intelligence under other situations – that cognitive flexibility would not negate the fact that he has low intelligence in general. We may also understand the factors that lead to more intelligent behaviors and be able to manipulate his behavior to display state intelligence- still that wont negate his low trait intelligence. So the assertion that cognitive flexibility means no individual/ cultural differences is pure wishful thinking. Similarly the fact that state differences can be easily created and manipulated does not lead to automatic negation of trait differences. I can easily create the state anxiety in Ed Yong as he sees his article criticized severally, but the fact that I can easily manipulate and understand a neurotic state, doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existence of a neurotic trait or tendency.

Time and again, studies like these seem to support the same basic, contrasting pattern of thought. Westerners appear to perceive the world in an analytic way, narrowing their focus onto prominent objects, lumping them into categories and examining them through logic. Easterners take a more holistic view: they are more likely to consider an object’s context and analyse it through its changing relationships with its environment.

I wont generalize to Westerners or Easterners, but definitely this does say something about the existence of an anayltical and holistic thinking style trait, which exists on a continuum, is highly correlated to ‘cultures’ and is thus a group trait, and a dimension on which some cultures may display extreme values. If studies have consistently supported and found that US culture leads to extremes of analytical tendencies while Chinese/Japanese culture ingrained people lean towards holistic style of thinking, why deny the fact. Is it because of a misplaced notion that if groups/ cultures differ it means one is ‘better’ than other- what about Neuroticism- is low (trait) neuroticism always beneficial and high (trait) neurtocism always bad. Not anymore- Read ‘Personality’ by Nettle for a quick overview but the growing consensus is that the extremes of traits are good under particular environmental conditions and a little variation against a continuum foolproofs one against future unpredictable environmental catastrophes. Extremes of traits can also be a result of adaptation to different environmental niches. So case settled- group/cultural differences on at least one important dimension fo analyitcal/ holistic thinking do exist.

For a start, the simplistic notion of individualistic westerners and collectivist easterners is undermined by studies designed to assess how people see themselves, which suggest that there is a continuum of these traits across the globe. In terms of individualism, for example, western Europeans seem to lie about midway between people in the US and those in east Asia.

Ed, what are you getting to here. Individualistic ‘US’ers and collectivist Chinese are perfectly compatible with existence of Europeans who do lie midway. To go back to Neuroticim, the fact that some are Neurotic, while others are calm is nowhere in contradiction to the existence of some people who lie midway on this dimension and do not show any extremes.If the point was that analytical/ holistic is not categorical but dimensional point well taken!

So it’s not all that surprising, perhaps, that other studies find that local and current social factors rather than the broad sweeps of history or geography tend to shape the way a particular society thinks. For example, Nisbett’s group recently compared three communities living in Turkey’s Black Sea region who share the same language, ethnicity and geography but have different social lives: farmers and fishers live in fixed communities and their trades require extensive cooperation, while herders are more mobile and independent. He found that the farmers and fishers were more holistic in their psychology than herders, being more likely to group objects based on their relationships rather than their categories: they preferred to link gloves with hands rather than with scarves, for instance (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 105, p 8552). A similar mosaic pattern of thought can be found in the east. “Hokkaido is seen as the Wild West of Japan,” says Nisbett. “The citizens are regarded as cowboys – highly independent and individualistic – and sure enough, they’re more analytic in their cognitive style than mainland Japanese.”

Why has it always to be an either-or. Ed agrees that local and social factors are important, so at least he agrees that cultural/environmental factors are important and lead to group trait differences. His argument is that within-group variation is more than between-group variation (if one considers a culture as a group and the ‘local groups, as individuals belonging to that bigger group) so it doesn’t make sense of talking about differences in cultural mean values. I don’t buy that. This argument has often been applied to ethnic/ racial IQ differences issues etc., and I believe that one should not deny facts based on their political or moral ramifications. Just like there are differences in average heights of chinese and americans, though the mean difference between chinese and american heights may be less than the variation exhibited in chinese or american society with respect to height, still it makes sense to say that on an average chinese are of lesser height than americans. This doesn’t sound racist, it is a fact. Same holds true for other differences like IQ or in this case the average holistic/analytical thinking displayed by a culture.The fact that there is variation within the culture does not negate differences in mean values between cultures.

Is it time we moved beyond simplistic notions of eastern and western psychology? Daphna Oyserman from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor certainly thinks so. She is not happy invoking history to explain modern human behaviour. “We can’t test if history mattered,” she says. “But we can test how contexts can evoke one or other mindset.”

Why not history- just based on the personal comfort factor? now that it is established that cultures differ in holistic/analytical dimension, one needs to find out why. Again, the effect may be inherited (and thus partly genetic) or it may be learned and due to non-shared environmental factors- different local and geographic conditions to which the cultures are currently exposed. To endorse one extreme of non-shared environmental influences(based n personal comfort levels) as paramount and to rubbish any suggestion of influence of shared environmental factors (which in this case is culture itself as it provides the cultural and social context in which the group develops)or even genetics is to me an extremely stupid and outdated stand. History (or the then non-shared environment like the intensive agriculture of chinese) has influenced the cognitive style and the cognitive style gets ingrained in cultural traditions. These cultural traditions in turn provide the shared environment in which the culture develops. Also , people who display more holistic/ analytical style in a particular culture, may be culturally selected for, and it would not be surprising, if the favored trait gets fixed in the genetic code by cultural selection of that trait as individuals having that trait will be more successful and this would get fixed in the population as a whole. Thus, the group differences on cognitive style trait could be inherited (due to genes and shared cultural traditions) and also may be learned a new (response to novel non-shared local conditions) .

This experiment suggests that while the psychology of westerners may be superficially distinct from easterners, when social isolation is an issue there is little difference between the two. In fact, Oyserman’s analysis of 67 similar studies reveals just how easily social context can change the way people think. For example, psychologists have “primed” east Asian volunteers to adopt an individualistic mode of thought simply by getting them to imagine playing singles tennis, circling single-person pronouns or unscrambling sentences containing words such as “unique”, “independence” and “solitude”. In many of the experiments volunteers from a single cultural background – be it eastern or western – show differences in behaviour as large as those you normally get when comparing people from traditionally collectivist and individualist cultures

One has to pause and ask where does ‘social isolation’ arise from if not a cultural tradition. If Chinese culture makes one feel more socially isolated and thus constantly in need of reaffirming relationships, than is that not a cultural difference – maybe we have narrowed it down to one important cultural tradition that leads to inheritability of thinking style, but still the cultures are different in important ways. Also, Experiments showing that priming can cause a lean towards a tendency nowhere prove that there are no group differences. Priming experiments have shown that when primed with old age related terms people walk slowly- does this negate the fact that young people are young, old people are old and there is whale of a difference in the average energy or walking speed of an old person and a young person. Should we conclude that age is a myth and that age is irrelevant to the average energy or time taken to walk a particular stretch!

The ease with which priming can alter our modes of thought makes it very unlikely that a penchant for either analytic or holistic thinking stems from deep-seated differences in the brains of westerners and easterners. Instead, it seems that the cultural context in which we grow up simply gives us more practice in thinking about the world in a particular way. “Everyone can think both ways, but on average, people tend to do more of one than the other,” says Oyserman.

Sorry again. We can all be primed to display more intelligent behavior and our modes of thinking (creative or detail oriented) can be altered and manipulated, still people are looking (and have found some lateralization differences) for brain differences in these modes of thinking and like every phenomenon there is bound to be brain differences involved.(No I’m not endorsing the right-brained/ left-brained myth, but saying that creative and detail oriented thinking have no neurological basis to me seems wrong. Also, I’m glad that at last it is acknowledged that cultural practices in which we grow up gives us more practice/ exposure to a particular thinking style and lead to differences. Why should learning not lead to brain differences(remember plasticty 101) but genetics do I fail to understand. Also, remember critical developmental periods. It may be that there is a critical period in which this holistic/analytical thinking style gets fixed and that causes a long-lasting effect. Consider language- what language, and any language at all, that the child learns is dependent on correct exposure during critical developmental time; one can learn foreign languages later also , but with considerable effort and not as naturally as a child does. The story with holistic/analytical thinking style may be the same. One may develop this trait duirng a critcial developmental window and although manipulable it may not be totally non-hardwired.

Brain imaging supports this. In an experiment that involved subjects looking at a series of squares with lines in them, Trey Hedden from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that in east Asians the areas of the brain involved in focusing attention worked harder if they had to identify lines of the same length regardless of the surrounding squares – an “absolute” task that requires you to focus on an object regardless of its context. But with Americans the same brain areas were working harder to identify lines whose sizes varied proportionally with their squares – a “relative” judgement where context is key (Psychological Sciences, vol 19, p 12). In other words, people had to think harder to perform tasks outside their cultural comfort zone. The brain uses the same mental machinery to solve complex tasks, but cultural differences can affect how well trained these areas are.

No it doesn’t, Haven’t read the original studies, but from your discussion the areas involved are those relating to focusing attention- I believe it is common sense that you would focus more attention on a task that is not ingrained and is novel.What about other brain areas specific to the task. Were there differences in brain activation related to holistic/ analytical thinking. Was there some lateralization effect?

What is clear is that the minds of east Asians, Americans or any other group are not wired differently. We are all capable of both analytic and holistic thought. “Different societies make one option seem to make the most sense at any given moment,” says Oyserman. But instead of dividing the world along cultural lines, we might be better off recognising and cultivating our cognitive flexibility. “There are a lot of advantages to both holistic and analytic perception,” says Nisbett. In our multicultural world it would benefit us all if we could learn to adopt the most appropriate mode of thought for the situation in which we find ourselves.

No It is not at all clear that the brains are not wired differently. I believe there should be small differences, but based on the flexibility shown by people in switching from one style to another one can use plasticity and practice to re-wire the brain. Whether that re-wiring is required, or cultural social engineering is required would depend on whether one considers extremes maladaptive or just adaptive responses occupying particular niches. To deny differences outright is to deny the truth and perhaps lead to the fallacy of thinking everyone thinks like oneself. To understand differences is a first step towards greater tolerance and understanding. Hope I make sense.

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