Jun 6, 2011

The Problem With Concepts, Part II

Here is what Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Perhaps, if we could examine the Manners of different Nations with Impartiality, we should find no People so rude, as to be without any Rules of Politeness; nor any so polite, as not to have some Remains of Rudeness.”

Of course this is true, but no one thinks that it is.  I had the following totally exhausting experience last year.  I was giving talks and visiting friends in Israel and was at a lovely restaurant in Tel Aviv (go to it: Manta Ray) with several psychologist colleagues and with two of my sons, who were 6 and 9 years old at the time.  Every once in a while someone would lean over to me and say, “Wow, your kids are so well behaved.  Mine would never sit here at this long dinner and just draw.”  My children, like many or most children, are sometimes appropriate to the situation and sometimes not.  And this fact has even varied over their development.  I would be hard-pressed to say that my children are well behaved or not as a general rule.  

Why can’t I?  Because of what happened then:  Then, we got up at 3 or 4 a.m. and dragged our kids out of bed to go to Ben-Gurion airport for a flight that left for Paris at 6 a.m. or so.  When we arrived in Paris, Charles DeGaulle, our flight for Clermont-Ferrand, where we live, had been delayed.  The flight was now going to leave at 4:45 p.m. instead of at 3:30 p.m.  In the gate and on the flight my husband let the kids play a computer game that was either in English or in German, I can’t remember which, and the kids were talking about it, in whichever language it was in.  I have no memory of how loudly they were speaking, only that I was not personally bothered by the volume.

And it is not the case that I am never bothered by the volume; sometimes I am overly sensitive to it.  When my kids speak loudly in English on a street in France, I tell them, in French and in front of other people, ‘you were born in France, your father is German, when you speak loudly and with an American accent in English then everyone thinks you are “a typical American who is loud,” so please don’t it, or else speak in French.’  Now my children laugh at me for saying that.

Anyway, back to the short flight… When we, after an uneventful 45-minute flight, arrived in Clermont-Ferrand, the people who were sitting in front of my children told me that my children were insupportable.  I do not have to translate that since it is the same word in English.  So, in a period of 15 hours, my children had gone from very well raised to unbearable.   I am sorry to say that a loud argument between those people and my husband and myself did in fact transpire.  I could not help myself, I was so offended.  

What does this mean beyond the clever quote by Ben Franklin?   It means that people do the same thing in developing concepts of social groups as they do as they develop self-descriptions: enegage in a terrific self-serving bias.  Compelling research by David Dunning and Rory McElwee shows that people have completely different ideas of personality traits (like dominant) depending upon whether it is a self-descriptive trait or not.   Specifically, (non-depressed) individuals describe a trait in totally positive ways if the trait is self-descriptive, and as less positive if it is not self-descriptive.  That is, we already know that the same behaviors can be referred to by a (culturally) positive trait or by a negative trait.   In 1977 Tory Higgins and his colleagues showed that the same neutral sounding behaviors could be called “reckless” or “adventuresome,” for instance.  The first trait would of course lead you to think a whole bunch more negative things about someone than the second. 

What participants did in the study by Dunning and McElwee (1995) was first, in one lab session, to rate the extent to which personality traits like creativity and dominance described them, personally.  In a next lab session the participants rated the extent to which a set of behaviors (that varied in how desirable they were in the culture) defined those traits.  The results showed that when people were (or at least thought they were) dominant, they defined dominance in terms of desirable behaviors much more positive than when they were not particularly dominant.  For instance, for dominant people the behavior "getting things done" might have defined dominance, whereas for people who did not see themselves as dominant, the behavior "being overtly agressive" might have characterized dominance.  What this means is that people can develop trait concepts that are built on their own self-serving definitions. 

A similar process must hold for cultural groups.   

For instance, what does it mean to be “well-raised”?  Does it mean that the child speaks softly (because there is not much room)?  Does it mean that the child eats everything on his plate?  Does it mean that the child thinks for himself?  Gets a job during high school?  What does it mean?  The problem is that once you have decided what it is, and you assert that a child is well-raised (or the opposite, poorly-raised) then you have communicated much, much more, and this is going to cause all sorts of international incidents.  If social concepts are like self-concepts, you get to define being well raised in terms of what you think your kids do.

For instance, some say that French children are better raised than American children.  That may be, especially when being well raised is defined by a French person.  However, in my experience, American university students do not talk during lectures (or if they do, they feel guilty about it), whereas at least 2/3 of the French university students in a given lecture hall talk throughout the entire lecture.  (One of my colleagues in France told me that I should just deal with this by lecturing to the one-third of the class that is listening).  If we decide that talking while someone else is trying to teach has nothing to do with being well raised, then we can maintain the assertion that French children are better raised than American ones.  Or better raised than children in any other culture in which they listen during a university lecture.  How about whether children wait at a red light before they cross the street.  If children do that more often in Germany than in France (and I have no idea about this, so I would want data of course), are the children better raised than in France?  

The point is that because each culture can make their own concepts, they can miscommunicate about them.  This is the obvious observation about the lack of progress in any Arab-Israeli negotiation.  If “well raised” is hard to define, then what about “fairness” and “justice”?  I see the problem with concepts all of the time.  When a European and an American academic agree that both of their academic departments are "too political," I throw my hands up.  They think they agree, but the word "political" does not have the same meaning in the two countries.  So their departments might share so similarity at all.  Or if they agree that there are a lot of "conflicts" in their department, they also may be ships passing in the night.

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