Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, August 5, 2016

East vs. West

When I travel, one thing that appalls me is when I see someone living up to the Ugly American stereotype.

Such as the Bermuda-shorts-and-tucked-in-plaid-shirt 60-something I saw in Finland walk right out into traffic, expecting everyone to stop for him because he'd seen an ice cream shop across the street he wanted to visit.  When horns blew, he snarled, "Learn how to drive" -- never once recognizing that it was only the fact that they knew how to drive that kept them from running him over.

I know all Americans aren't like that (fortunately), and in fact, more of them are respectful of other cultures than not.  After all, why travel if what you want is to have things exactly like you have them at home?  Still, I think there's a real undercurrent of "We're the Best" running through the American psyche.  Add that to the exceptionalism that was rampant in Western Europe's colonial days, and you have what cultural psychologists call the "West vs. the Rest" phenomenon.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I'd always kind of accepted this idea based on nothing but my own anecdotal experiences while traveling, and (in fact) I didn't even think to question whether it had ever been studied.  For example, when I was in Malaysia three years ago, the culture seemed so radically different from mine that it was hard not to come to the conclusion that culturally, we have little in common.  So it was with great interest that I read a paper I stumbled across a couple of days ago that was published just this week in The Journal of Experimental Psychology.  Called "Beyond the 'East-West' Dichotomy: Global Variation in Cultural Models of Selfhood," the study, conducted by cultural psychologist Vivian Vignoles of the University of Sussex et al., blows away the myth that there is some sort of huge cultural divide between the West and the rest of the world.

The idea that Vignoles et al. looked at was the specific part of this belief that has to do with how people view their connections to others, and the idea that the cultures of the West tend to emphasize independence, while the cultures of the East value interdependence.  The study was exhaustive, involving 73 researchers and more than 10,000 test subjects in 35 different nations.  And what they found was twofold: that comparing East vs. West, we're more alike than we are different; and that even so, there is tremendous cultural variation within both East and West.

"Self-perceptions influence our social relationships, health and lifestyle choices, community engagement, political actions, and ultimately our own and others' well-being," Vignoles explains in an interview in  "Our new research provides a much richer and more accurate picture of cultural diversity in self-perceptions than was previously available.  It shows that when we label a cultural group as 'individualist' or 'collectivist', this can lead us to make a lot of false assumptions about how people in that group will see themselves, and so we may wrongly predict how they might respond to our communications or interventions."

Considering how important global understanding is these days -- and the risks and potential cost of misunderstanding -- it is essential that our leaders understand this point.

"Our findings suggest that members of Western cultures tend to view themselves as more self-directed, unique and self-expressive than those from some, but not all other parts of the non-western world," Vignoles says, "and they do not typically view themselves as more self-interested or self-reliant. Western cultural groups are not an 'exception' but form part of the kaleidoscope of cultural diversity."

Further, the tendency of Westerners to view everyone else as homogeneous "foreigners" is equally inaccurate.  "Cultural groups in other parts of the world have distinct models of selfhood that are poorly reflected by previous models of culture and self-perceptions," says Vignoles.  "In fact, the prevailing cultural models of selfhood in Middle Eastern, East Asian, Sub-Saharan African or Latin American world regions are at least as different from each other as they each are from the Western model."

It brings to mind the old Vulcan award from Star Trek, called the IDIC, given to individuals who had made significant contributions to interstellar amity.  (Okay, I'm a nerd, deal with it.)  IDIC stands for "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."  Turns out that we don't have to go any further than our own Earth to find such diversity -- and that in that diversity, we have far more common ground than many of us imagine.

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