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Jumping to foregone conclusions

By J.J. Jackson
web posted July 23, 2007

Last Monday I was reading about a study which supposedly shows that American individualism hinders our ability to understand others.  Now the counter claim in this study is that collectivist societies (communist, socialist, etc.) help people that live under them understand others better and take into account their "point of view".  This is a polite way of saying, "You damn Americans are the reason there are problems in the world!  You don't understand our point of view!"

Cognitive psychologist Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago, who co-authored the study, said that cultural differences such as this, "affects the way we communicate."  Of course anyone with an intelligence greater than a carrot knows intuitively that people from different cultures communicate differently.  We didn't need Mr. Keysar to tell us this.  But this study turned out headlines such as these:

Live Science: "Study: Americans Don't Understand Others"
New Scientist: "Self-centered cultures narrow your viewpoint"

Again, like I said, the purpose is basically to say, "you damn Americans and your self-centered ways!"

Keysar praised communist societies such as China because of their ability to, "put themselves in the shoes of another when they were communicating," and also stated, "We are less likely to step on each other's toes if we are aware of one another's cultural differences."  Aw  ... where's my guitar?  Now all I need is a campfire and a few friends for a rousing rendition of Kumbaya and I'm all set!

Here is the way the study worked.  A participant was brought into a room with another person called a "director".  Two blocks were on the table before the participant but both were only visible to the participant while a barrier enabled the "director" to see only one.  The "director" would then instruct the participant to move the block.  Now remember the "director" can only see one block while the participant can see both.

The study found that among the American's that were studied, confusion resulted as the participant pondered longer which block to move.  It was assumed that they should have been able to figure out that the director could only see one block and that only the block they could see was the one that they wanted moved.  Again, that is what the study's authors assumed.

The study also found that when Chinese participants were brought in to the same situation they had a much easier time doing what the exercise was designed to prove and moved the block the director could see with less delay.  Hence the leap is made that collectivist societies yield a better understanding of other people's "point of view".

Of course this study really doesn't show this.  Like most studies, what is happening here is that people are drawing the foregone conclusions they want rather than actually trying to study something and then get an actual answer.

Now, it didn't take me more than 10 seconds to formulate an alternative reasoning beyond that of Mr. Keysar's conclusions.  My conclusion is this.  In collectivist societies the people are drilled to follow orders and they chose not to do so generally at their own peril.  Collectivist societies don't generally look kindly upon those that do not follow orders.  Therefore people from such societies react quickly when commanded and don't take into account any other variables that might exist.  Thus they move to do what the "director" demands to please the "director" as soon as the thought that he or she can only see one block crosses their mind.

Whereas in a non-collectivist society people tend to be a little freer thinking and not prone to react quickly to orders outside of life and death decisions.  I know that's radical to claim isn't it?  But it means that they tend to question orders that are given to them and ponder possible options such as does the director know that there is a second block (i.e. been told of it, etc.) even though he or she cannot see it?  Is the "director" trying to trick me?  Is the obvious answer not the right answer?  Is there some way that the "director" can see the second block that is not clear from first glance?  What are all the possibilities here?

Now that is certainly an interesting conclusion and I think I can make a convincing argument that free minds are certainly more prone to explore, compare, contrast and then make a decision rather than simply obey and react.  But that's not the one that Keysar and his study explored apparently.  And my conclusion is just as valid, if not more so, based on how poorly constructed the study was.  It was even admitted to be a "very gross oversimplification" by Keysar.

But no, Keysar's conclusion was that collectivist societies are more caring and understanding of other's points of view.

And of course such a conclusion also doesn't take into consideration whether or not one's point of view is rooted in reason, worthy of consideration and then being followed either.  After all, not all points of view are valid.  Some are so unviable that they die the second they are spouted from one's mouth.  And yes, I can cite examples of non-valid "points of view"..

So let's say we did this little study again.  Except this time instead of being ordered to move a block, the participants are given a loaded gun and ordered by a "director" to shoot a man bound and gagged in a chair.  The "director" discusses his "point of view" that the man is murderer who should be sentenced to death.  Of course, being bound, the intended victim would not be allowed to refute these claims.  I wonder if those that pulled the trigger with less hesitation would be considered as being able to better understand another's "point of view" because they reacted more quickly?

Millions were murdered because of the "points of view" of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and others.  Were those people that lived in those collectivist societies just simply more "understanding" than us damn Americans?

For those of us that have the "American individualism" we are able to take in "points of view", process them, analyze them and reject those that are not worthy of being followed.  For many of us it doesn't take more than a few seconds to process the bad ones and understand that such opinions properly belong in the circular file.  Meanwhile, those that are more attuned to understanding the "points of views" of others would do what?  Would they accept and obey no matter how hideous? ESR

J.J. Jackson is a libertarian conservative author who has been writing and promoting individual liberty since 1993 and is President of Land of the Free Studios, Inc. He is the lead editor of Conservative News & Opinion – The Land of the Free and also the owner of The Right Things – Conservative T-shirts & Gifts. His weekly commentary along with exclusives not available anywhere else can be found at http://www.libertyreborn.com


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