More threads by Daniel E.

Daniel E.
Americans can't step into shoes of others

Individualism stops people from seeing other viewpoints, study suggests

By Corey Binns, LiveScience
July 18, 2007

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."

The results are detailed in the July issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Collectivist societies, such as the Chinese, place more value on the needs of the group and less on the autonomy of the individual. In these societies, understanding other peoples' experiences is a more critical social skill than it is among typically more individualist Americans.

Gross oversimplification
"Of course, these are very gross oversimplifications," said Keysar. "Even in America, you can find collectivist societies. For example, working class people tend to be much more collective."

Culture appears to direct our eyes to read others' emotions, too.

Psychologists at Hokkaido University in Japan have found that Japanese gaze at the shape of a person's eyes, while Americans focus on the mouth. When people from the two cultures interact, these crisscrossed sightlines can lead to miscommunication.

"We all know people from different cultures are different. This is not new. But what research is now showing is how they're different and what are the implications," Keysar told LiveScience. "If we are aware of how we think differently, this can go a long way toward not allowing these differences to get in the way of reaching mutual understanding."



Interesting article...but sadly it doesn't take a study to confirm America's "every man for himself" attitude. Everyone is constantly focused on me, myself and I and screw the others. You can see the results this attitude is having on the destruction of our way of life, from corporate profiteering to the mass-marketing of healthcare (a human right, in my opinion). When the majority of Americans live in Third World poverty conditions, the environment is irrevocably ruined, and every country in the world is laughing at us, we'll have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Daniel E.
Everyone is constantly focused on me, myself and I and screw the others.

Well, that's certainly an overgeneralization, though an understandable one. For example:

About 61.2 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2005 and September 2006, the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor reported today. The proportion
of the population who volunteered was 26.7 percent.
Collectivism and individualism are coexisting social patterns whether in a region, a race, a nation or a culture. For example, the U.S., a country overwhelmed with individualist attitudes, has made ‘collaboration’ and ‘teamwork’ fashionable words in the corporate world as well as in the art world.

Some studies show that Westerners are more narcissistic than people from Asian cultures. Others posit that people "self-enhance" in every society—it's just that in a more collectivist culture, such as Japan's, narcissists are subtler, since self-aggrandizing behavior isn't rewarded or respected.

My favorite book on Japan, Shutting Out the Sun, makes the following point, which, for me, takes away any lingering romanticism for collectivism:

American and Japanese psychologists have demonstrated that when faced with a social situation they do not like, Americans readily try to influence others to change their behavior. Japanese, by contrast, are far more likely to adjust their own behavior to the demands others make upon them, to accommodate the wishes of the collective.

Anyway, an optimistic point made by Professor Robert Thurman is that "compassion is more fun" than self-interest:

I think the key to saving the world, the key to compassion is that, it is more fun. It should be done by fun. Generosity is more fun, that's the key.

Similarly, there is evidence that altruistic people may live longer, happier lives:

"You might get all your giving back in the form of lower medical bills," he said. "Altruism shouldn't be viewed as something without benefit to the agent.

"Take Scrooge. As he discovers the 'helper's high,' he is the happiest man in England. That's the image I want."

Regarding corporate profiteering, it's a problem, but even Americans below the poverty line are rich compared to those in third world countries. An example of capitalism at its best is Bill Gates and Warren Buffet both donating billions of dollars to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. An example of capitalism at its worst is the largely unregulated pollution in large Chinese cities, which contributes to hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.
Last edited:
Replying is not possible. This forum is only available as an archive.