American Culture Destroys Empathy

After some speculation around this topic on The Unapologetic Mexican blog, now comes some clinical proof:-

People from Western cultures such as the United States are particularly challenged in their ability to understand someone else’s point of view because they are part of a culture that encourages individualism, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

In contrast, Chinese, who live in a society that encourages a collectivist attitude among its members, are much more adept at determining another person’s perspective, according to a new study.

One of the consequences of Americans’ and other Westerners’ problems of seeing things from another person’s point of view is faltering communication, said Boaz Keysar, Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago.

“Many actions and words have multiple meanings. In order to sort out what a person really means, we need to gain some perspective on what he or she might be thinking and, Americans for example, who don’t have that skill very well developed, probably tend to make more errors in understanding what another person means,” Keysar said.

Keysar is co-author with University graduate student Shali Wu of “The Effect of Culture on Perspective Taking,” which discusses their research and is published in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Although studies of children have shown that the ability a person to appreciate another person’s perspective is universal, not all societies encourage their members to develop the skill as they grow up. “Members of these two cultures seem to have a fundamentally different focus in social situations,” the authors wrote of Chinese and Americans.

“Members of collectivist cultures tend to be interdependent and to have self-concepts defined in terms of relationships and social obligations,” they said. “In contrast, members of individualist cultures tend to strive for independence and have self-concepts defined in terms of their own aspirations and achievements.”

They chose two groups of University of Chicago students: one consisting of 20 people from China who grew up speaking Mandarin, and another group including 20 non-Asian Americans who were all native English speakers.

The researchers tested a hypothesis that suggested interdependence would make people focus on others and away from themselves. They did that by having people from the same cultural group pair up and work together to move objects around in a grid of squares placed between them.

In the game, one person, the “director,” would tell the other person, the “subject,” where the objects should be moved. Over some of the squares, a piece of cardboard blocked the view of the director, so the subject could clearly tell what objects the director could not see. In some cases there were two similar objects, one blocked from the director’s view and one visible to both people playing the game.

The Chinese subjects almost immediately focused on the objects the director could see and moved the correct objects. When Americans were asked to move an object and there were two similar objects on the grid, they paused and often had to work to figure out which object the director could not see before moving the correct object. Taking into account the other person’s perspective was more work for the Americans, who spent on average about twice as much time completing the moves than did the Chinese.

Even more startling for the researchers was the frequency with which many of the Americans ignored the fact that the director could not see all the objects.

“Despite the obvious simplicity of the task, the majority of American subjects (65 percent) failed to consider the director’s pespective at least once during the experiment,” by asking the director which object he or she meant or by moving an object the director could not see, Keysar said. In contrast, only one Chinese subject seemed confused by the directions.

Americans do not lose this ability, but years of culturalization based values of independence do not promote the development of mental tools needed to take into account another person’s point of view, they said.

“That’s a huge difference – it’s off the charts,” says Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is also the central issue of Sicko, how a culture has become all about ‘me’ and not about ‘we’, a we that would all contribute to national healthcare, to be concerned with other people. It also has implications in how the empire is operating, the cultural suppression of empathy results in the war crimes we see committed and a political culture that really only accepts the center and the right. The research says ‘western’ but it does seem to only refer to America, comparisons with other western countries would be interesting. I would hazard a guess that in countries with a higher incidence of conservative govts. you will get lower empathy. Capitalism after all does rely on us being selfish lonely robots.

It is also relevant with the resurgence of torture, and Bush’s recent ruling that actually doesn’t prohibit torture but gives legal and political cover to the perpetrators.

“It seems like the goal of today’s order is not to produce clarity, but rather to produce room for reasonable doubt when CIA officers are defending their own abusive conduct,” said Shayana Kadidal, Managing Attorney for the Guantánamo Global Justice Initiative at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

And news of further force feeding of hunger strikers at Gitmo further shows the distance from ethical standards even doctors have now moved-

Twice a day at the U.S. military prison here, Abdul Rahman Shalabi and Zaid Salim Zuhair Ahmed are strapped down in padded restraint chairs and flexible yellow tubes are inserted through their noses and throats.

In recent months, the number of hunger strikers has grown to two dozen, and the military is using force-feeding to keep them from starving.

The force feeding of hunger strikers by physicians at Guantanamo Bay under the authority of US officials is in direct violation of international codes of medical ethics, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said today. Ethical codes endorsed by the American Medical Association (AMA), including the World Medical Association (WMA)’s 1975 Declaration of Tokyo, which was elaborated in the 1991 WMA Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers (see links below), state clearly that “where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the doctor as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially.”

And here is the beginning of a solution- withdraw from Iraq and nationalised healthcare. If you haven’t seen Sicko yet, go now!

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5 Responses to “American Culture Destroys Empathy”

  1. libhomo Says:

    It is important to remember that corporations are drawing immigrants to the US to pit them against American workers. Corporations have been using internal and external migration in the US to cut wages and working conditions for over a century and a half.

    Progressives need to acknowledge that immigration is a problem for poor and middle class Americans, rather than leaving the issue to the xenophobes. The punitive efforts against immigrants have been a dismal failure in terms of stopping immigration, though they have left immigrants more vulnerable and much more easily exploited in the workplace.

    Progressives need to propose real alternatives to the right, such as changes in foreign policy, trade policy, and debt policy changes so that people wouldn’t be so desperate to leave their home countries.

  2. RickB Says:

    Have you read this The True Front of Progressivism ?
    Worth a look on this subject.

  3. U.S. Defecit « Automatic Preference Says:

    […] Read more (Via Ten Percent) […]

  4. libhomo Says:

    I just read “The True Front of Progressivism,” and it is perfectly understandable from the perspective of someone who has immigrated to the US.

    But, there are a lot of historical facts that people on the left don’t know about, or aren’t thinking about in their current context.

    In the 19th Century, corporate interests encouraged a massive white immigration to this country in order to depress wages and to keep African Americans in a state of economic desperation. During the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the big growers and canners misled thousands of white people to California to compete with other white people, further depressing wages and causing poverty and even death (see The Grapes of Wrath). Internal migrations can be used just as effectively as economic weapons as external ones.

    The eliminationists have so thoroughly framed the issue in terms of the ethnic identities of the most easily identified immigrants and sensationalized the extent of the economic problems caused by immigration, that many on the left are busy arguing against the racism. There is nothing wrong about arguing against racist hysteria, but being in denial about a real problem effecting the US is dangerous and plays into the hands of the extreme right.

    Immigration to the US is not happening in a vacuum. NAFTA is ravaging the Mexican economy at the same time it is hurting middle class and poor Americans. The Mexican and US elites are doing great, but everyone else suffers.

    There’s a reason why the Chiapas revolt started the day NAFTA went into effect. NAFTA gave agribusiness that is located in the US and owned by global capital a chance to decimate the well being of so many Mexican farmers. That created a whole lot of people who had two choices, migrate to the border and work at one of the barely-paying factories or illegally immigrate to the US. To makes things even worse, the US’ involvement in (and role in the creation of) the World Trade Organization has allowed corporations to pit Mexican labor against poor people throughout the world, creating even more poverty and misery.

    The efforts by the Bush regime and Congress to subsidize and mandate corn based ethanol as a fuel are adding to the misery by raising the prices of corn in Mexico on people who already are impoverished. The fact that the corn used, grown on factory farms for the most part, requires tremendous amounts of C02 producing fuels to grow only makes a bad situation worse.

    Mexico is hardly unique in its role as a country being screwed over by corporate-controlled trade, the IMF, World Bank, etc.

    And, the US government contributes to all of this in other ways, especially interventions. If the US would treat Haiti fairly (or even just stop overthrowing democratically elected governments there), many Haitians could stay at home and not be forced to try to leave. Also, for every military intervention abroad, there are numerous economic interventions that make the elites wealthier and everyone else worse off.

    Illegal immigrants to the US are making perfectly understandable decisions, decisions that US policies give them little alternative but to make. So, what does the right do when this immigration hurts Americans economically? They blame the immigrants, not the policies. It’s easier for them to hit down at brown-skinned people in a racist society than to hit up at the corporations and bought politicians causing the problems.

    It is important for the left to oppose the racist ideology, but it also is important for the left to encourage people who are being hurt by immigration to start hitting up at the powerful. Pretending that people aren’t being hurt by immigration will only cause them to tune out any suggestions that they address the corporations and wealthy elites that are behind the war on middle class and poor people throughout the world.

  5. RickB Says:

    Fundamentally I think there is no problem with immigration if a living minimum wage and labour laws were enforced (and transnationally). As they are not the pressure should be on govt and its corp chums, not people who simply want to work for money. That immigration is tacitly encouraged to depress the cost of labour is an old capitalist trick that is always hidden using racist demagoguery targeting the very same workers that they use to boost profits and control costs. Thus increasing the pressure on them to keep quiet and accept any pay & conditions. So I think the ‘immigration’ debate is always a false frame, the ‘problem’ is an unregulated labour market and all the parties who have made it that way.


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