Tuesday 31 July 2007

An experiment.

So, here's a scientific study purporting to show that Americans are self-centred. That's a new one.

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.

Nice slipping-in of the word "possibly" there. What the researcher, Boaz Keysar, is saying is that his team have made an interesting discovery about the different behaviour of people from different cultures and have no idea what causes that difference, but, let's face it, it's probably that those bloody Americans are insufficiently Socialist, isn't it? The self-centred Capitalist bastards.

But has Keysar really made a particularly interesting discovery? Hmm.

The study, though oversimplified compared to real life, was instructive. Keysar and his colleagues arranged two blocks on a table so participants could see both. However, a piece of cardboard obstructed the view of one block so a "director," sitting across from the participant, could only see one block.

When the director asked 20 American participants (none of Asian descent) to move a block, most were confused as to which block to move and did not take into account the director's perspective. Even though they could have deduced that, from the director's seat, only one block was on the table.

Most of the 20 Chinese participants, however, were not confused by the hidden block and knew exactly which block the director was referring to. While following directions was relatively simple for the Chinese, it took Americans twice as long to move a block.

What is truly amazing about this result is that the only conclusion Keysar has been able to reach from his data is that Chinese are more empathetic than Americans.

What is not being considered here is the obvious fact that the participants were all well aware that the "director" was a part of the research team. If you just happen to find yourself in a room with some bloke, and he asks you to, say, hand him a book, and you can see two books but you can also see that he can only see one of them because there's a lamp or something in the way of the other, it doesn't take much deduction to figure out which one to give him. But if you know that he carefully set the room up before you arrived, that he positioned the books and the lamp, that he decided where you and he would sit in the room, and that he is testing you in some unspecified way, it's considerably less obvious: OK, you can see that he can only see one of the books, but you know full well that he knows about the other one and knows exactly where it is. And you know that these damn psychologists are testing your ability to do something or other — for all you know, it might be your ability to see or to do the non-obvious. In those circumstances, a failure to jump to conclusions would be, I'd've thought, a sign of intelligence — in fact, being slowed down by considering not only what the director can see but also what you think he probably knows would arguably be a sign of greater empathy, not less. Meanwhile, a quick reaction could simply indicate a fear of getting in serious trouble if you don't obey orders quickly enough — which would not be surprising in people used to living under a murderous dictatorship.

And then there's the wording:

the director asked [participants] to move a block

This is just some news report and could be inaccurate, but that wording kind of leaps out because it's so non-standard: "a block", not "the block". If the director really was using that wording, then that skews the experiment yet further, because we simply don't use the word "a" to describe single objects. If the director were genuinely only aware of the presence of one block, he'd say "the block"; saying "a block" would signal to the subject that he knows of at least two of them. This sort of subtlety might well not be noticed by Chinese people for whom English is not a first language. Or, if the experimenters spoke to their Chinese subjects in Chinese, we'd need to know how well that distinction between "the" and "a" translates into Chinese.

There is a brief glimmer of hope that Keysar is aware of his experiment's inadequacies:

"Of course, these are very gross oversimplifications," said Keysar.

No, really?

"Even in America, you can find collectivist societies. For example, working class people tend to be much more collective."

But no: it's not the experiment which is oversimplified; merely the idea that all Americans are selfish. Some are actually OK. And as an example, Keysar names a left-wing designated victim group. It's almost as if the guy has some other agenda or something.

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