Wrong Conclusion, Wrong Headline

18 07 2007

Live Science:

Study: Americans Don’t Understand Others

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.

“This cultural difference affects the way we communicate,” said study co-author and cognitive psychologist Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago.

Simple study

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.

“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.”

I don’t think this means that Americans can’t understand other societies’ mores and folkways, and if one is going to jump to that conclusion from this study, one should also say that the Chinese don’t understand others. All it means is that it confirms what we understand from real-world observation of China and the Chinese, both historically and modern-day, that they have a collectivist and nationalist ant-like mentality.

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