More on Chengdu and collectivism

A friend recently sent on quite an amazing blog post. It is a systematic, but funny!, examination of the "science" behind NYT column I was objecting to recently:  David Brooks' claim that economic competition between China and America should really be understood as a clash between collectivist and individualist models of life and thought.

The premise of the NYT column was: We don't like to admit it, but brain experts and experimental psychologists know what we're going to do before we know ourselves. For instance, by knowing whether we come from a collectivist or individualist system, they can predict what we'll see when we look at a tank of fish.

I was complaining about the application of this theory to the real world of modern China. And I didn't make a point I should have: The problem is not just sweeping generalizations about the billion-plus highly diverse people who live in China. The further point is that if you were to generalize, you'd find that many outsiders who've lived in China consider it more individualist-minded than many other Asian countries, notably Japan. (For instance, southern China is full of tiny mom-and-pop factories, since people love being their own boss and aren't that keen on taking orders from others.) It's commonplace to hear Americans and Chinese say that they feel their cultures share many personality traits, despite the obvious huge differences. More another time.

But that is small potatoes compared with the argument presented by Mark Liberman, of the linguistics and computer science department at U Penn. It turns out that the theory itself is .... well, see for yourself in Liberman's devastating analysis at the Language Log blog.

One little sample:

Brooks' column: "If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim."

Liberman: "First of all, it wasn't a representative sample of Americans, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at the University of Michigan; and second, it wasn't Chinese, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at Kyoto University in Japan; and third, it wasn't a fish tank, it was 10 20-second animated vignettes of underwater scenes; and fourth, the Americans didn't mention the "focal fish" more often than the Japanese, they mentioned them less often."

In my twilight years, I am not looking to pick a fight with anyone, and explicitly am not looking to do so with the amiable David Brooks. But I didn't like the argument or craftsmanship of this column, and I do hope he recognizes the danger of applying this kind of theorizing to big, important parts of the world. Or any parts!

Update: A good roundup of online reaction to Brooks's column here.