Do Cultures Have Personality?

When people talk about culture and personality, the normal top-of-the-mind concern is whether cultures affect personality and if so to what extent?

English: An Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of t...

English: An Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World: World Secular-Rational and Self Expression Values as a map of world cultures based on World Values Survey data. Svenska: En Världskulturkarta av Inglehart-Welzel typ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Personality, or enduring individual differences in thinking, feeling, motivations and behavior among have been shown to be partly heritable and under genetic effect; they are partly shaped by the culture and early life experiences also.

However, this post is not about the culture’s effect on personality; rather just like individuals differ from each other on certain universal traits (say the Big Five) and this individual difference is what typically comes to mind when one talks of personality of an individual (i.e. so-and-so is extarverted as compared to population mean etc) , so too cultures show differences from each other and one may conceive of these differences as enduring and differentiating aspect of that culture vis-a-vis other cultures, in essence its personality.

A name that is quite well-known in this context is that of Geert Hofstede. He, initially, in the 1970s, analyzed values data from IBM employees, from over 50 countries to arrive at four dimensions on which the cultures differed. He later extended this work and analyzed data from World Values Survey and work by him and others later led to addition of two more dimensions. The six dimensions, on which cultures differ, in his own words [pdf] are:

1. Power Distance, related to the different solutions to the basic problem of human inequality;
2. Uncertainty Avoidance, related to the level of stress in a society in the face of an unknown future;
3. Individualism versus Collectivism, related to the integration of individuals into primary groups;
4. Masculinity versus Femininity, related to the division of emotional roles between women and men;
5. Long Term versus Short Term Orientation, related to the choice of focus for people’s efforts: the future or the present and past.
6. Indulgence versus Restraint, related to the gratification versus control of basic human desires related to enjoying life.

Lets analyze this a bit further.

Power Distance has been defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.

To me it seems all about relationships among people- whether the hierarchical relationships are accepted or resisted. If one could extend an analogy to individual differences in personality, this may be analogous to the trait of Agreeableness in individuals- whether you are kind and nice or aggressive towards others.

Uncertainty Avoidance is not the same as risk avoidance; it deals with a society’s tolerance for ambiguity. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, and different from usual.

To my mind it is absolutely clear that is a cognitive dimension and analogous to Openness to Experience in individual variation. Both share the underlying theme of being open and exploratory and tolerant of ambiguity.

Individualism on the one side versus its opposite, Collectivism, as a societal, not an individual characteristic, is the degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups. On the individualist side we find cultures in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the
collectivist side we find cultures in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) that continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty, and oppose other ingroups.

To me this looks like an analog of Extraversion-introversion in individuals. One end is quite while the other is quite engaged with outside activities. In cultural terms, one end is characterized by close knit families while the other with more individualistic pursuits.

Masculinity versus its opposite, Femininity, again as a societal, not as an individual characteristic, refers to the distribution of values between the genders which is another fundamental issue for any society, to which a range of solutions can be found.

I cannot find a ready analogue of this in individual differences in personality in terms of the Big Five. In cultural terms this is related to whether gender roles are heavily differentiated (masculine cultures) or less so (feminine cultures).

Values found at this pole (long term orientation) were perseverance, thrift, ordering relationships by status, and having a sense of shame; values at the opposite, short term pole were reciprocating social obligations, respect for tradition, protecting one’s ‘face’, and personal steadiness and stability.

This can be equated easily with the Conscientiousness individual difference, one pole of which is associated with self-control etc.

Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that controls gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.

This focus on happiness/ well-being versus constraint and repression of desires may be the analogous of neuroticism and emotional stability, where one end may have repressed desires at individual level while other exhibits more stability.

I know this is a far conjecture, and by no means am I suggesting that if a culture is high in Uncertainty avoidance, the individuals within it will have low openness to experience; the relationship between cultures and personality is more complex than that; but it is a good way to think about cultures that they too have a unique personality and its structure may be on the same lines as individual differences personality.

If Psychology Had an Indian Heritage

This post originally appeared on my Psychology Today blog “The Fundamental Four” on 13th Dec. 2011.  This is cross-posted from  there.


Some days back, Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks blog linked to a blog post from Sabrina, of the Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists blog, and they both lamented the fact that modern psychology has a pre-dominantly western slant and speculated what might have been the case had psychology been developed under Korean influence (where for example Mind is ‘Maum’ or composed of feelings, motivations etc as opposed to being cognitive in nature).

To boot:

In the West, and, specifically, in the English-speaking West, the psychological aspect of personhood is closely related to the concept of “the mind” and the modern view of cognition. But, how universal is this conception? How do speakers of other languages think about the psychological aspect of personhood?

In Korean, the concept “maum” replaces the concept “mind”. “Maum” has no English counterpart, but is sometimes translated as “heart”. Apparently, “maum” is the “seat of emotions, motivation, and “goodness” in a human being” (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 271). Intellect and cognitive functions are captured by the Korean “meli” (head). But, “maum” is clearly the counterpart to “mind” in terms of the psychological part of the person. For example, there are tons of Korean books about “maum” and body in the same way that there are English texts on “mind” and body.

Today I wish to extend the debate and focus specifically on how psychology might have been if it had been developed under Indian influence.

Firstly, instead of focusing on the somewhat dubious mind-body duality, we would be focussed on the more fruitful matter-consciousness duality.

As per the Samkhyaa (or Number- based) system of Indian philosophy (the oldest philosophical tradition), the world is composed of two distinct fundamental realities. The first is Purush (sentient pure consciousness) and the second is Prakriti (insentient Nature) and these two are not reducible to each other. This is very strong form of dualism.

The Purush is supposed to deform the Prakriti and this interaction leads to Prakriti splitting into 24 tattvas (or 24 basic elements) and that is the reason we see such diversity in nature.

Before you lose patience and leave as to what this has to do with personhood and mind, just bear with me for one more minute.

The prakriti gives rise to Mahat Tatva or Buddhi (intellect) as the first of the 24 elements. This is the subtlest aspect of a life form. Buddha or enlightened one derives from being at this stage.

From Mahat rises Ahamkar or Self and I. This is of three forms – sativk (stable; I, the observer) , rajasik ( in motion; I, the doer) and tamasik (stationary; I, the unchanging) .

From Ahamkar arises Mann (feelings) and Chitta (unconscious memories and precepts).

The ‘antahkaran‘ or the equivalent of subjective aspect of personhood i.e. what is referred to as Mind in English is made up of these 4 element – Chitta (unconscious memories, precepts etc) , Mann (feelings) , Ahamkar (sense of I or selfhood) and Buddhi (Intellect or reason).

Thus the second difference, if Psychology had evolved in India, would have been that Mind would not be predominantly cognitive and conscious in nature , but will have had unconscious aspects, as well as conscious aspects of feeling, willing and deciding.

To continue on the Samkhya evolution (from subtle towards grosser aspects of personhood), Mann gives rise to 5 Sense organs (gnyana indriyas) and 5 Action organs (karma indriyas); while chitta gives rise to 5 Mahabhut (matter forms) and 5 tanmatras (matter qualities).

Here I believe is where modern Psychology has heavily gone astray. Most scientists conceive of brain as an information processing tool and lean towards sensation, perception and believe that brain evolves basically for these purposes and action or movement is secondary; thus the focus on the 5 sense organs – those of vision, audition, somatosensation (touch), olfaction (smell) and gustatory (taste).

Psychology harps about these 5 sense organs but is silent on the agentic conception of the person/ life form whereby it is movement for which brains have evolved. A stray scientist like Daniel Wolpert or C H vanderwolf makes the case for primacy of movement and action , but that voice is easily lost in the cacophony surrounding research on vision and other senses.

Indian psychology/ philosophy/ religion puts action organs at equal footing with sense organs and implicitly imply that brains or mind is for both sensation/perception as well as for action/motion.

The five karmendreyas (action organs ) are mouth (from whose movement speech flows), hand (to handle tools) , feet (for locomotion), excretory organs (for pushing out the residues) and reproductive organs ( to inject / take inside reproductive material from a partner.

Thus, I guess the greatest contribution that Indian culture would have made to psychology would have been by making it more even handed towards both research paradigms focused on sensations and perceptions as well as research paradigms focused on action and motion.

What unique perspective does your culture/ religion offer on the sense of person-hood, the cultural nature of mind or the framing of the mind-body problem. Let us get as many insights from other cultures as possible and loosen the grip of WEIRDism on Psychology.

c: copyright: 2011 Sandeep Gautam

Enhanced by Zemanta

Logos Vs Mythos: Autism Vs Schizophrenia

I recently came across this TED talk by Devdatt Patnaik, A chief Belief Officer in an Indian industry group and was fascinated by his description of the distinction between logos based ‘the’ world which is objective, logical, universal, factual and science based and mythos based ‘my’ world which is subjective,emotional, personal, belief-based and mythological in nature. while ‘the’ world tries to answer ‘how’, ‘my’ world tires to answer ‘why’.

To me the same is true of Autism and Psychosis dichotomy. While autistic frame of reference is rooted in ‘the’ world – trying to apply a science based approach even to the mind and mental; the psychotic frame of reference becomes detached from ‘the’ world and is totally enamored by the subjective depths of ‘my’ world -attributing mental properties to physical things too.

Devdatt, later on goes to contrast East Vs West Myths and here at the second order , though we are talking of mythos and not of logos and are in the psychotic/mythic world , we see a difference in focus, between the eastern traditions and the western traditions. While the east is portrayed as more spiritual and renunciation-believing in multiple lives and thus multiple chances; the west is depicted as more materialistic and ambitious and believing in one and only life and thus believing in only one chance of redemption -and though this dichotomy may be simplistic it does bring into focus the fact that the cultures do differ profoundly.

The difference between cultures and mythologies, and the people shaped from them thereof, is important in light of a new study , for eg., that demonstrates that most of the behavioral research is carried on with WEIRD people! WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic subjects and the paper claims that these WEIRD subjects are outliers and not representative of the general population. If much of the scientific and psychological research is done on WEIRD subjects (which is a fact) and if WEIRD are not representative of the population (which seems reasonable given the differences in culture and the ability of culture to shape people) , than that raises a more serious questions on the results of behavioral studies than the voodoo correlations paper raised questions about the fMRI studies.

Devdutt, though seems to be slightly biased towards Indian culture, but the TED talk is worth a watch. And you may also find one of my earlier post relating Indian culture,religion, and Autism, Schizophrenia quite pertinent here.

Do you think Devdutt is right when he stresses differences in cultures and myths? If so, do you think Culture shapes people? and if so do you believe with Norenzayan et al that if we just do studies based on WEIRD subjects, our results are not representative but skewed. Lot of questions to think about!

Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, & Ara Norenzayan (2009). The Weirdest People in the World? Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Technorati claim tokens: 7TMZ8XKX5DN3 and QTJUVQSR7E2X

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

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.

Support for the Broken Window

Ed at Not Exactly Rocket Science has an important post  on research by Keizer and colleagues, which found support for the broken windows theory of crime spread. He dos a very good job of describing the broken window theory, the experiments of Keizer et al and how they show that disorder spreads like a virus, so I won’t repeat all that here but urge you to go to his blog to get the complete lowdown.  

What I would like to highlight instead is that fact that this Broken window theory was brought to public focus by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point and subsequently the same theory was thrashed in Frekonomics by Dunbar and surprisingly Malcolm Gladwell had promoted and written an encouraging blurb for Freakonomics. You can read more on the controversy here . I obviously had disliked almost all the explanations in Freakonomics and believe that the book was more on trying to be controversial rather than offering new insights. I , on the other hand, have been sympathetic to Gladwell’s writings and it is heartening to note that new research supports the old position that lawlessness spreads via small acts and it may be more important to take care of small, everyday acts of lawlessness than to focus on a few big problems like the cocaine addicts. I would just end with a brief note on Gladwell’s new book Outliers, which is on my immediate reading list and I am pleased that he shares some of my thoughts about how SES affects outcomes in life (like IQ) and how we are creatures of circumstances.

Go to Top