Trouble Thinking

March 6, 2011

Cultural Context and Elements of Choice

I saw in interesting video today on CNN from the TED conference, a presentation by Sheena Iyengar on “The Art of Choosing”. In it she discusses the differences in how choices are perceived and made between American culture and cultures elsewhere in the world. It’s a very enlightening and entertaining video, found at the following link:

In the article accompanying the video describes a cultural experiment called the Michigan Fish Test, which illustrates difference in perception between cultures. Look at this pretty picture for 5 seconds and then pretend you cant look at it anymore. What do you notice about the picture?

Damn it, you’re only supposed to look at it for 5 seconds. You’re not looking anymore, are you? Shit, this “controlled experiment” stuff is tougher than it looks.

In any case, if you’re an American, you’re probably more likely to notice the three big fish and describe the picture with them as the central element. If you’re Japanese, you can’t understand what I’m typing, and you’re staring at your computer screen completely befuddled. Or, if you can read English, you noticed more the environment as a whole with the fish as being just one element of it. This difference in perception is a good way to contrast the difference in emphasis between the two cultures: Americans are more Individualist, Japanese are more Collective.

As an American I place a very high value on the individual making choices for his or herself. In fact, I have a very difficult time understanding collectivism. I can understand wanting to associate with other like minded individuals to further common goals, but thats all they are in essence, tools for bringing about something *I* want. I don’t consider my own will subservient to the will of the group, and I dislike situations where my individual choice is restricted or removed and placed in the hands of a collective, or another individual.

Contrast this with people who grew up in different cultures. As described in the video, Eastern Europeans who grew up in the Soviet Union have a difficult time transitioning to a society where they have choice when previously they had little. There are suddenly far too many options to chose from, and the choices between similar things like Coke and Pepsi can be befuddling. They don’t want 28 different varieties of soda, thats too many options and too little difference between each selection. They see it all as soda. Whereas myself, an American who has been trained from birth to recognize and navigate a world of almost unlimited choice, I dislike it when I cant buy the exact type of soda I want, and I expect to have as many options as possible to discern.

Its sobering to think that the world view I so staunchly believe in, the narrative in which I am the heroic individual who defines his life by his choices, can be an alien one to people in other parts of the world. Since we’re all being honest with one another here, I’ll admit something. I think that collectivism is a road map to stagnation. How can innovation thrive in a culture that places more value on tradition and deferring to those before you, than it does on seeking new options and creating new choices for individuals?

Now before you start screaming at me for being an anti-cultural racist or something. I’m not claiming that Japanese people lack ambition, intelligence or the ability to invent new things (or other non-american cultures for that matter). But I think that that environment is not conductive to progress and advancement. In a culture that values new ideas, individual freedom and choice, and the rags-to-riches dream, Americans have given the world the following things (just to name a few):

Refrigeration, The Electric Telegraph, The Airplane, The Bulldozer, The Liquid Fueled Rocket, EEG Brain Topography, The Digital Computer, Nylon, Kevlar, The Transistor, Supersonic Flight, The Television, Radio Carbon Dating, The Atomic Clock, The Laser, Carbon Fiber, The Integrated Circuit, The Birth Control Pill, The Compact Disc, The Jumbo Jet, E-Mail, The Internet,  The Heimlich Maneuver, and The Global Positioning System.

None of those things originated in more collectivist cultures, and the world is better off for their invention. Maybe I never will truly understand those other cultures. I’ve been bred and trained in an individualist society, so the barrier is difficult to breach, but even if I can never truly connect with those other paradigms, history will be my judge. Let those who come after me judge whether or not this hardcore individualist’s efforts were worthwhile to mankind. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Furthermore ,*BAM*:

Abe Lincoln riding a bear. I win. Artwork by: SharpWriter




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