Misleading “cultural” research

The headline was intriguing, “Study: Americans Don’t Understand Others.”  I clicked on the link hopefully, dreaming that perhaps there was some hidden wisdom in there that would make me understand my difficulties with the local English culture and people.  Alas, this was not to be the case.  The article opens thusly:

  • “Rugged American individualism could hinder our ability to understand other peoples’ point of view, a new study suggests.
  • And in contrast, the researchers found that Chinese are more skilled at understanding other people’s perspectives, possibly because they live in a more “collectivist” society.”

However, the entire article is a lot of hot air based on a single experiment with a single event (a request to move a block) and was conducted on an extremely small group of people.  Nowhere in the article does the writer admit that perhaps this is all a load of hooey, that the authors of the study might have been lacking some cultural sensitivity in drawing conclusions such as this one:

  • “That strong, egocentric communication of Westerners was nonexistent when we looked at Chinese,” Keysar said. “The Chinese were very much able to put themselves in the shoes of another when they were communicating.”

The experiment was designed around the participant (American or Chinese, and only 20 of each) being asked to move a block on a table in response to instructions from a “director”.  There were two blocks on the table but the director could only see one, the ask-ee could see both.  The Americans were less likely to put themselves into the director’s shoes and thus did not tend to guess correctly which block to move (given that the director could only see one they were to move the director’s block) and thus did not catch on to what was being asked of them.  Now go back and read the quotes inset above, and see how likely it is that those quotes followed directly from the results of this particular experiment.  No, I did not think so.  

Given the greater respect for authority that is common in Asian cultures, it is unclear to me that any strong conclusion  follows from the results of the experiment: other interpretations of the results–Chinese were more likely to consider the perspective of the authority figure–are not only possible but more plausible.  The experiment simply does not test any hypothesis of “rugged American individualism” or Chinese “collectivist society”.  Nor does an experiment about moving blocks on a table actually speak to communication styles since moving blocks is not actually communicating.

(In matters of Chinese culture, I prefer not to overinterpret given my own lack of experience but instead to put this out there and hope my sister–who lived in China–will comment on how she would interpret these “findings”.)

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One response to “Misleading “cultural” research

  1. That’s social “science” for you! Way to reduce 1.3 billion people to an outdated cultural stereotype! Next they’ll be going on about how the industrious Chinese don’t need standard wages because they can live on less and eat rats. That there are major differences in how people from two sides of the world view things is not particularly shocking. It is much harder to explain than to identify, I think. And one of the studies it links using a similar sample of Chinese, but concludes that “Asians” view things differently from Americans… is the claim that these are national characteristics? Racial? How would Chinese Americans fit in? Does anyone who grows up in Asia fit this collectivist profile, or do you have to be “Asian” in the right sense? Would it apply to Chinese from Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore? Also, what’s the point of all this? The best way to learn how to interact with people you don’t understand is to live there and speak the language. If you go armed with social science, are you really more prepared to conduct business or diplomacy?

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