individualism-collectivism origins east-west divide
April 9, 2008 7:00 PM   Subscribe

The individualism-collectivism split between Eastern and Western cultures is well known but it's origin somewhat of a mystery. Now a team of researchers has come up with a surprising explanation: disease-causing microbes.
posted by stbalbach (46 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
And I thought it was their consumption of civet cats.
posted by isopraxis at 7:04 PM on April 9, 2008


Eerie and fascinating. I'd thought of this as more a North-South than East-West divide, though.
posted by grobstein at 7:06 PM on April 9, 2008


(fascinating article btw.)
posted by isopraxis at 7:06 PM on April 9, 2008


I wonder what the actual correlation number is. I'm highly skeptical Richard Nisbett, the author of the book is a psychologist, not a biologist and so is the author of the paper Mark Schaller.

Evolutionary Psychology is something that a lot of people view skeptically, to say the least. If it's known that human culture does not create the pathogens, then it's still possible that whatever it is that causes more pathogens also causes more collectivist societies. The article mentioned warmer weather as one cause, but warmer weather (I think) also causes humans to flourish as well as microbes. Life is a lot harder in the cold, you have to work a lot harder at staying alive.

So it could be that in colder weather, people will be more hesitant to help their neighbors fi they think their neighbors are slacking off, where as in warmer weather there may be bigger bounties and people might be more willing to help other members of their society and not have to worry so much.

That's one example.
posted by delmoi at 7:19 PM on April 9, 2008


Good article. I shall now proceed to use this to explain why bands in cold cities like Chicago and New York are quite unique from one another, whereas in LA they all try to sound like each other.

actually, that's all there is to that theory, which is mine, and what it is too.
posted by davejay at 7:20 PM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


warmer weather (I think) also causes humans to flourish as well as microbes. Life is a lot harder in the cold, you have to work a lot harder at staying alive.

I'm not too sure about that. True, in colder climates there is a difficulty in growing food and maintaining adequate shelter, but tropical climates have their own challenges - namely disease, parasites, competition (greater variety of species competing for niches) and just good old rot. I recall the first time I saw a documentary on tribes living in the Amazon, and my first thought was "oh hell no, I would NEVER want to live there!" In tropical forests there is also a lot fewer large animals to hunt for meat, and the soil is very poor for agriculture. I think it was sheer necessity that drove humans to colder climates, where the soil was richer, food was more plentiful, water was clean, and worms wouldn't burrow under your skin. I'd trade my grass hut, string belt and steamed grubs for a nice wood house and venison jerky any day of the week (but I acknowledge this may be a cultural preference).
posted by The Light Fantastic at 7:32 PM on April 9, 2008


Oh hell no. Crowd people up over the generations and watch them lose autonomy, then suffer, turn inward, renounce the world, then seek tranquility through the acceptance of their fate as deservedness - the inertia known as social conformity.
posted by Brian B. at 7:33 PM on April 9, 2008


I've got to think about this some more, but on first blush, I'm thinking that's got to be the stupidest goddamn overgeneralizing parochial bullshit theory I've heard so far this year.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:45 PM on April 9, 2008 [10 favorites]


I thought this was going to be similar to those microbes that cause their host bugs to get eaten so the 'crobes can reproduce in the eator's feces; but like microbes in Japanese peoples brains cause them to choose 'banana' in soc psych tests.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 7:57 PM on April 9, 2008


I'm unable to find specific references at the moment, but I seem to recall that immigrants from collectivist cultures will quickly assimilate individualist norms upon moving to the US. It's not clear whether the article is calling for some form of genetic contribution to these different cultural norms. Could still all be pure cultural transmission.

All I could find was that priming collectivist norms will make westerners endorse more collectivist norms.

Interesting stuff none the less. But certainly not set in stone.
posted by Smegoid at 7:58 PM on April 9, 2008


I'm thinking that's got to be the stupidest goddamn overgeneralizing parochial bullshit theory I've heard so far this year.

Rubbish. It makes perfect sense.

Where there are heaps of pathogens, people can maximise their survival by avoiding each other as much as possible. Therefore, they are more individualistic. Or at least, individualism is selected for, because people whose tendency is to interact are more likely to die off.

In colder climates, where there are fewer pathogens, people are free to socialise more without getting infected. They also need to socialise more, in order to build up reserves of food to store for the winter, and to defend their hoards against raiders. This intensive farming, and building & manning of fortified settlements requires them to be more collectivist.

Do you understand it now?
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:01 PM on April 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm not too sure about that. True, in colder climates there is a difficulty in growing food and maintaining adequate shelter, but tropical climates have their own challenges - namely disease, parasites, competition (greater variety of species competing for niches) and just good old rot.

Right... but none of those things are related to how 'lazy' a person is. Let me be a little more clear about what I mean.

Let's suppose you're out in some temperate climate somewhere, and you've absolutely got to farm X amount of food per year to survive. Conditions are such that if you work your ass off you can produce X*1.2. Your neighbor slacks off and produces X*0.7. Now come February he's starving and comes by asking you for food. You can give him 0.2 and maybe some of the other neighbors can pitch in, but you're barely making it. A slightly less bountiful harvest and he's all on his own. That kind of environment is more likely to create an "everyone fend for themselves" situation, where laziness is derided and it's everyone for himself.

Now, consider a situation where one person's labor produces X*20 food. Not by farming, but simply hunting and gathering. There's enough food for everyone, just walk around and pick it up! You end up with large villages filled with 'useless' relatives provided for by young and healthy family members.

You work hard for a few years providing for your elders, and then 'retire' expecting your children to take care of you. In this kind of society people would be more reliant on social bonds rather then their own work.

And while there are plenty of hardships, none of them have anything to do with how hard a person works, so a more collectivist society springs up.

Nothing to do with microbes (although, you could argue they reinforce this idea, as if you are more likely to get sick, you're more likely to need to rely on others to help you through your illness)

I'm not saying any of that is how it actually played out, but it's one possibility that would need to be disproven before you could take the microbe theory seriously.
posted by delmoi at 8:04 PM on April 9, 2008


I second that...but it is in awfully close quarters with the "scientist" who says that blonds came from becoming blond to attract ice age hunters. Remember that theory? These two pieces ignore basic fact of conservative societies, that control the marriages of their children. In some swings of he economic pendulum, extreme conservatism has collective overtones.

The Inuit peoples of the far North, as germ free as it gets, were very group oriented. Survival mandates group effort, in harsh climates, and harsh social climates.

The tropics are neither Eastern nor Western. Either extreme Patriarchy, or Matriarchy cause clan isolationism.

I think this person just thinks that far Easterners are dirty. But let me tell you, there was no place more nasty than Europe in the middle ages. Oh yeah, slop buckets hurled out windows over streets! People never bathed! People had no concept of the connection between disease and filth.

Come to think of it, this is a ridiculous theory!
posted by Oyéah at 8:08 PM on April 9, 2008


"Collectivist or individualistic genes" arising due to environmental factors seems pretty ridiculous. Sure, looking at how the environment has affected a culture's norms makes much more sense. A culture is going to promote the values that, over time, keep the society cohesive and keep its members alive. No biological changes are needed for social norms to evolve.

This article seems ridiculously simplistic (is the article an oversimplification of a real paper, or something else that's backed up with hard research?). What's with the description of North America as historically anti-collectivist? Has the author ever heard of Potlatch? Or, for that matter, Native American cultures? I think they're confusing North America (thousands of years of history) with the US (a few hundred years of history). And the arrival of Europeans brought plenty of new shiny diseases to the continent along with anti-collectivism. A sweeping, simple theory sounds nice, but it neither accurately describes nor can predict actual cultural developments. There are just too many other factors and exceptions.
posted by rivenwanderer at 8:18 PM on April 9, 2008


The Newsweek article states "A reluctance to interact with strangers can protect against pathogens because strangers are more likely to carry strange microbes that the group lacks immunity to, says Mark Schaller of the University of British Columbia."

I Googled for about thirty seconds and found
Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variability in individualism / collectivism
at http://www.psych.ubc.ca/~schaller/publications.htm which at a glance more-or-less lines up with its treatment in the Newsweek piece - surprising given Sharon Begley's ridiculously shallow take on such a complex and dynamic issue (- the cultural traditions of "Ecuador, Panama, Pakistan, India, China and Japan" in about six pages, 1.5 spaced - really?)
posted by Sangermaine at 8:31 PM on April 9, 2008


meh, seems like someone is wrapped up in semantics to me. Wittgenstein frowns! then trims your hedges!
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 8:52 PM on April 9, 2008


Do you understand it now?

I understood it perfectly before you repeated the simple straight-line argument presented in the linked article, Mr Superior.

It makes perfect sense.

It makes perfect sense if you don't know a goddamn thing about the cultures and societies you're trying to lump into a single basket. Otherwise, not so much.

In colder climates, where there are fewer pathogens, people are free to socialise more without getting infected.

Japan is mentioned. Korea is not, although it is indisputably one of the more collectively-oriented cultures in the world. Both, though, are cold-climate (or temperate, at least) countries. Ever spent a winter in NE Asia? So why are they more pathogen-prone than, say Spain, or Greece, which are at similar latitudes?

The reason I said that I needed to think about this because it's the kind of argument, like the ones, for example, that Jared Diamond makes in Guns, Germs and Steel, and is attractive in its simplicity, and might even be defensible as playing some role in the development of cultural trends in far-flung regions. Might be, but to what degree and in what ways, I need to think more about. I've spent the last decade of my life living in a country where the primary engines of culture are fueled by unspoken and explicit group-centered thinking, something utterly alien to the way I was brought up. I've spent a lot of time thinking about these things, for what little it's worth.

I think this person just thinks that far Easterners are dirty.

That's kind of the feeling I was getting too. There is something to be said for this kind of environmental determinism, but not as much as its more enthusiastic supporters seem to think.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:09 PM on April 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


The problem with this sort of evolutionary "just so" story is that you can make up a story to rationalize any outcome.

If it had turned out that folks in germier areas tended to be individualists, you could have told a story about that too:
"Infectious diseases, you see, tend to kill people prematurely. If you don't know that your own children will outlive you, you can't count on them to support you in your own age. So rather than rely on your family, you need to strike out on your own and gather enough resources to support yourself."
Or maybe:
"Monocultures are more susceptible to disease. If you plant the same plant in a field ten years running, parasites will take over; if you switch it up every year, you'll beat the parasites. Similarly for people: if you share the same genes with the rest of your village, the first disease you're susceptible to will wipe you all out. The more germs are around, the better off you are living with people you don't share genes with, so that at least a few of you will have immunity to any given plague."
Really, no matter what the data said, some clever storyteller would have come up with an explanation that would have us all nodding and grinning. But that just means people like stories. It doesn't mean the stories prove anything.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:23 PM on April 9, 2008 [9 favorites]


stavros - did you notice that i was using their wonderfully simple analysis of how societies respond to high or low pathogen levels, but coming up with the exact opposite conclusion?
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:15 PM on April 9, 2008


or, what nebulawindphone said (with tongue removed from cheek)
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:18 PM on April 9, 2008


stavrosthewonderchicken: You just got pwned. Go re-read UbuRoivas' comment again.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:19 PM on April 9, 2008


My apologies -- rereading, I see you did. You were agreeing with me, then, all subtle-like?

Serves me right for not reading anybody's comments after the first sentence.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:21 PM on April 9, 2008


woohoo! your shout!

(but since that's kinda difficult, i'll buy both beers, but drink them both. deal?)
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:41 PM on April 9, 2008


Evolutionary Psychology produces unprovable just-so story spun as "science proves cultural/racial/gender stereotypes are correct".

Why does everyone love these so much?

I suppose over long periods of time people who casually accepted specious arguments had more time to spend hunting and gathering, thus giving them an evolutionary advantage.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:17 PM on April 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


By the logic presented here, desert countries should be high on individualism, but Arab culture, for example, is thought of as collectivist. It's an interesting idea, but seems really thin from what I'm seeing in this article.
posted by taz at 11:42 PM on April 9, 2008


There is no better way to shatter someone's "we are all the same" illusion than to show pictures of a monkey, a panda and a banana to someone from Japan and someone from Britain. Ask them which two images go together.
I grouped monkey and banana together. I'm a member of the anglosphere (Australia).
posted by Sitegeist at 12:20 AM on April 10, 2008


I grouped panda and banana together because pandabanana just sounds funny.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:21 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I grouped monkey and banana together because of the cover of The Pixies - Doolittle.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:24 AM on April 10, 2008


That's just the sort of thing an individualist would do!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:50 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I grouped panda and banana together because pandabanana just sounds funny.
Especially in a fake, metronomic Japanese accent.
posted by Sitegeist at 1:30 AM on April 10, 2008



::I'm highly skeptical Richard Nisbett, the author of the book is a psychologist, not a biologist... Evolutionary Psychology is something that a lot of people view skeptically, to say the least.

::"Collectivist or individualistic genes" arising due to environmental factors seems pretty ridiculous.

::The problem with this sort of evolutionary "just so" story is that you can make up a story to rationalize any outcome.

::Evolutionary Psychology produces unprovable just-so story spun as "science proves cultural/racial/gender stereotypes are correct".


1) Nisbett is not the author of the pathogen study (nor is his work cited in it), he is the author of a number of psychology studies comparing people from Western and Eastern cultures. He does not believe the differences are biological and provides evidence to the contrary.

2) The linked article neither says or implies one thing about genetic differences or evolutionary psychology (that is outside of a quote from Nisbett suggesting the differences are not genetic!). The actual paper notes that the results are consistent with genetic or cultural adaptation to ecological differences - which they are.

'Evolutionary psychology' is a defined research program based on theories about how the Pleistocene (prehistory) generated human universals while this study is about differences between modern cultures based on modern and historical conditions. Further, a "just-so story" implies an entirely speculative etiology is imposed on an already known difference, while this study used a logically articulated theory based on established evidence to make an entirely novel prediction. This is, in fact, the exact opposite of a "just-so story".

It would strongly appear that the Evo Psych Boogie-Man is an easy excuse MeFites use to be close-minded for no legitimate reason. If you can't even be bothered to read the linked article (or can't be dispassionate enough to read it correctly), then what business do you have critiquing it?
posted by dgaicun at 4:18 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is, in fact, the exact opposite of a "just-so story".

Whether it is a 'just-so story' or not, it is nonetheless laughably spurious bullshit.

I don't know why delmoi brought up evolutionary psychology, whatever that is, nor do I know if it applies here, nor do I much care. I read the article: I still dispassionately think the theory is a wrinkly load of hairy old dogs' bollocks.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:52 AM on April 10, 2008


Mr. Chicken,

Why did you feel my comment applied to you? In fact you haven't bothered to articulate a criticism at all, so there is scarcely anything to respond to.

Perhaps you should see if Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences will publish your detailed analytical (and, of course, dispassionate!) one sentence rejoinder: This bullshit paper makes me laugh, and it's stupid and smells like my dog's balls; I live in Korea.
posted by dgaicun at 5:23 AM on April 10, 2008


I do not have a dog.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:27 AM on April 10, 2008


Also, I'm just fucking with you. My lack of academic publications on the subject renders me unqualified to hold a considered opinion on the subject, and I'm not interested in arguing about the theory anyway, mostly because it dignifies it to an extent I don't think it deserves. And it smells like dog balls.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:36 AM on April 10, 2008


smellss more like dog ball wonton noodle soup to me.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:51 AM on April 10, 2008


(the extra s was there to emulate somebody drooling)
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:52 AM on April 10, 2008


I'm just going to ssay 'on the subject' again, because I like ssaying that sso much. mmm soup
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:54 AM on April 10, 2008


soup is good food.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:07 AM on April 10, 2008


Easterners have slanty little eyes that make everyone look the same, hence collective. Whereas you can easily tell a stupid Pollack from a repressed German or lazy Italian.
posted by klangklangston at 8:19 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


soup is good food.

What, you have to bring the Dead Kennedys into this?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:22 AM on April 10, 2008


Seems to me the authors start from a bad premise [Area X (Europe) has less disease than disease than Area Y (East Asia)] than proceed to base collectivism as a function of disease. I fail to see how anyone could believe that contemporary epidemiological data could be used to speculate on the origins of social behaviors. The authors would have to show the prevalences of the various diseases they chose to study (those pathogens "detrimental to human reporductive fitness)" at the time these societies coalesced into their modern forms. Using data from the previous century would not be acceptable either, the authors would have to go back centuries or millenia to prove their hypothesis.

Then there is the ham-handed lumping together of disparate societies together under the mosaic qualities of "individual" and "collective." Perhaps if the authors were not so keen on proving their point they might have had the time to perform a similar statistical study on groups within their predetermined regions; Han vs. Miao, or Punjabi vs. Keralan, or Japanese vs Ainu. As these groups live in more similar geographic areas (or at least are more precisely grouped than simply "Asian") they would no doubt have similar prevalences of disease, but score quite differently on the patchwork scale of collective/individual. A similar study could no doubt be performed between the cities of Kyoto and Osaka that would lead to the two cities being placed in oppositional catagories of disease and geography. What I'm trying to say is, the collective/individual dichotomy is a shallow generalization at best, and when applied to gross geographic generalizations and mixed with bad biology it becomes bunkum.

PS - When the banana, monkey, panda question came up I asked, "What kind of monkey is it?"
posted by Panjandrum at 10:59 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's hard to judge without access to the paper, but I'm still betting on "just so story".
The presence of pathogens also predicts cross-cultural differences in personality traits, not just shared cultural values. "In places that have historically had a lot of diseases, people generally score lower on measures of extraversion and 'openness,' which is jargon for curiosity and related traits," Schaller says.
I'm sure they've found some correlations, but with concepts as nebulous as these, instrumenting against other sources of correlation is going to be incredibly difficult. Suppose warmer climates lead to more sociability/collectivism because people aren't stuck in their houses so much? What about rainfall? Population density? Transport networks? Historical contigency? What if the causation is the other way around, and diseases spread more easily when people interact more or in larger groups? I'm deeply suspicious that they can run an effective regression against enough factors.

Regarding Evolutionary Psychology, this Corey Fincher amongst other things has presented a meeting on "The Evolutionary Biology of Political Values", which suggests to me he's active in this kind of area.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:25 AM on April 10, 2008


I came across a good comment on Slashdot today which addresses the danger in this kind of speculative theory. It was related to a discussion on evolutionary biology (which colours are we most sensitive to and why?) but the point the commenter is making is directly relevant to our discussion here.

Perhaps even more so as the 'established evidence' dgaicun wants us to believe is at the base of this theory seems to be very flimsy (the rubbish about different groupings of monkey, banana and panda), overly general or just plain not there.

Here's the quote from the comment.
I know some evolutionary biologists like to extrapolate really far from the evidence, but it always hurts when they are wrong on some theory that gets discounted, since it gives creationists a hammer to bludgeon all of biology and science with. Please don't give them that ammo, and label speculation as speculation until there's real concrete evidence to show. For evolution of these traits, that means sticking mostly to the "what" and "how", and not claiming "why" except in the most general and statistically supportable terms.
posted by Sitegeist at 10:34 PM on April 10, 2008


Perhaps even more so as the 'established evidence' dgaicun wants us to believe is at the base of this theory seems to be very flimsy (the rubbish about different groupings of monkey, banana and panda), overly general or just plain not there.

Actually, the "established evidence" I was referring to was well-established individual social behavior in response to possible signs of infection - the actual basis for testing their predictions at the broader social level (predictions - not "speculations" - that turned out to be correct). As I already fucking told you, Nisbett's research -- which itself is solid science that is highly regarded within psychology -- is not cited in the paper (only in the Newsweek article), and is not the basis for their prediction. You would know this if you actually read the 6 page paper linked in this thread, instead of ignorantly lashing out at a body of research you never had any intention of reading or understanding.

The quote you use is absurd for a number of reasons (and does not apply to this research which is not a "speculation", but a successful prediction generated from a theory built on prior research). Science is not about "being right" all the time, it is about being wrong most of the time, but getting there in a disciplined, transparent, and methodical process.

Testing and falsifying theories in journals does not vindicate or give succor to creationists in any logical way, it mocks their failed epistemology.
posted by dgaicun at 6:29 AM on April 12, 2008


The original post only had one link. That was to the Newsweek article. At the very start it launches into the monkey, banana, panda rubbish. Generalisation on the level of West and East.

I'm a great believer in 'fractal' reading. The part is indicative of the whole. After giving up on that nonsense article I picked up from the discussion here that the theory is that the cultural patterns of 'individualist' in 'The West' and 'collectivist' in 'the East' was being ascribed to one have a 'cold and less diseased' environment and the other having a 'hot and more diseased environment'.

The level of generalisation in such a theory is so mind-bogglingly high that it cannot be taken seriously. And I'm sure not going to waste my time reading a six page paper that was linked to by supporters of the original Newsweek article. They've just shot their credibility to pieces.
posted by Sitegeist at 2:51 AM on April 22, 2008


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