Why cultures collide and what you can do about it
Sep 172014
The Two Fridas Playing

For years, we’ve tuned in to PRI’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge” most Sunday nights. So imagine our delight to be a guest on TTBOOK to discuss Clash! and how people navigate their many and often conflicting cultural identities. The line-up for the episode, called “Split Identities,” was top-notch, and included former Clinton speechwriter Eric Liu discussing his memoir A Chinaman’s Chance; and filmmaker Lacey Schwartz talking about her documentary, Little White Lie, which chronicles her discovery of her family’s deep dark secret: she is biracial. Have a listen and let us know what you think!

Jul 162014

In her book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Yale Law professor Amy Chua described the high-pressure parenting style common in much of East Asia and ignited an international debate: Do Tiger Moms really push their kids to excellence, or do they crush them with expectations?

The answer? It depends on the family’s culture, find Clash! coauthor Hazel Rose Markus and Stanford cultural psychology graduate student Alyssa Fu. In their recently published research report (FuMarkus2014), the researchers document that Asian-American kids thrive on pressure from their Tiger Moms, but European-American kids balk at parental demands.

In one study, for example, Fu and Markus asked Asian-American and European-American students at a California high school to complete difficult word puzzles. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to the mom condition, in which they described their mother after learning they had scored poorly on the first set of puzzles. The other half of the participants were randomly assigned to the control condition, in which they described themselves after their unsuccessful first round. Fu and Markus found that Asian-American participants in the mom condition worked harder on a second set of puzzles after describing their mothers than did European-American participants in the mom condition. In contrast, European-American participants attempted more puzzles after describing themselves than after describing their mothers. These results suggest that parental connections help Asian-American students but hinder their European-American counterparts.

Fu and Markus explain that Western children are taught from a young age to be independent, unique, and separate from others—including their own mothers. In Asian-American families, however, children learn the value of being interdependent, similar, and connected to others—especially their mothers.

So is it better to be a Tiger Mom or a cool mom? The answer depends on culture. Most European-American children have been coached in the merits of independence, and so they resent parental pressure. In contrast, most Asian-American children feel highly interdependent with their mothers, and so they perceive parental pressure as support.“When Asian-American kids see themselves as really connected with their mothers,” writes Fu, “they can benefit from their mother’s pressure.”

–By Shannon Schaubroeck

Mar 142014
Opting Out Cover

Do women “choose” to leave science, or does the daily grind of discrimination, lose-lose tradeoffs, and culture clashes drive us away? Do we opt out, or are we pushed out, to use the language of sociologist Pamela Stone? The data are still rolling in, but today in Sciencewe show how the more popular opting-out account obscures the more likely gender-bias explanation–even in Science publications. [pdf]

As cultural psychological research shows, middle-class European Americans readily cite personal choices as the cause of people’s actions, but are slower to see how situational affordances and constraints shape behavior. This “choice bias” arises from the European American cultural understanding of people as independent, autonomous, and in control. In contrast, most other cultures of the world understand people to be interdependent, connected, and constantly adjusting to their situations.

We and our colleagues recently caught the insidious “choice bias” at work in a Science publication called Science Careers, which targets young scientists on the hunt for jobs. Today Science published our Letter pointing out the bias, as well as the response from the journalist who penned the original article. Kudos to Science for publishing both Letters, for together they illustrate how even well-meaning and well-informed people often fail to recognize the choice bias and its insidious effects.

Also, many thanks to our coauthors: Karen S. Cook, Shelley J. Correll, Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, Carol B. Muller (who brought the Science Careers article to our attention), Jennifer L. Raymond, and Caroline Simard.

Science-2014-Choice and Bias

Jan 142014
UAE bookstore

Happy Mouloud (or Mawlid), the birthday of the prophet Muhammad ! If you were hoping to celebrate this holiday by buying a copy of CLASH! in the United Arab Emirates, you are out of luck, for the UAE’s censors have banned our book.

What’s so scandalous about CLASH? you ask. Is it our amply documented discussion of how people from different cultures understand themselves differently? Our gentle, evidence-based suggestions for how to heal cultural divides? Or maybe it’s our author photo, with its indelicate revelation of our collarbones?

The censors will not say, but our publisher guesses our offenses are:

1) The 5 pages (out of 246) we devote to discussing interdependence in Jewish culture, and

2) The 1 cm Star of David on our cover.

In other words, merely mentioning Judaism will get your book drop-kicked out of the UAE.

This makes us sad because CLASH! has much to contribute to the conversation about peace in the Middle East. In addition to the short section on Judaism that landed our book in the UAE no-buy zone,  CLASH! includes a rich exploration of the Middle East and North Africa’s (MENA’s) unique style of interdependence, which stresses the preservation of honor and the protection of family and friends. We show how this understanding of interdependence can lead to ideas and practices (wasta, cronyism, sensitivity to insults, vendettas, etc.) that seem irrational and corrupt to people in cultures that emphasize independence.

“For most Arabs,” we quote the anthropologist Lawrence Rosen, “it is only realistic to believe that society is better served by webs of obligation than impersonal roles….To grasp that,” he continues, “is to enter a world of enormous decency and order, even if it is not our world.”

Alas, our well-intentioned and painstakingly researched examination of why the interdependence of MENA clashes with the independence of the U.S. and Europe will not reach an important MENA audience: residents of the UAE.

On the occasion of Muhammad’s birth, we ask, is this what Muhammad would have wanted? WWMD? During his lifetime, Muhammad certainly had grievances against Judaism and Jews. But he never put the kibosh on conversations about these differences or how to bridge them. Censoring CLASH! thus seems out of keeping with Muhammad’s own example.


Nov 252013

Over the river and through the woods, you can now listen to CLASH! as you drive, walk, or caper across the autumnal landscape. Hazel and Alana narrate the book, which means you can bask in Hazel’s warm Californian inflections and Alana’s slightly Southern accent (although she worked hard to say “gender” instead of “ginder.”) If you’ve already read CLASH! and wish you could induce your, say, coworkers and in-laws to learn more about why your cultures clash and what they can do about it, the Audible CLASH! makes a great gift.

Apr 112013

Alana and Hazel opined on “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J in The New York Times’ “Room for Debate.”

Because popular music lyrics are so memorable and pervasive, they powerfully shape individuals’ thoughts, feelings and actions. How many of us could not recall, even if our lives depended on it, the basics of algebra we worked so hard to memorize, and yet know every word of Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” even though we’ve tried hard to keep it out of our heads?

Like many social and cultural forces, once lyrics weasel their way into our unconscious minds, they subtly direct our behavior. And so it is good and right to examine what LL Cool J and Brad Paisley are crooning about in a heavily promoted product of the musical industrial complex. Both artists are naïve to think that other people should look past their cultural accoutrements — the do-rags and red flags — to “get to know me.” The notion that our cultures and our selves can be cleanly separated is a myth.

Behind this naïvete, however, are two well-intentioned people attempting to negotiate their cultural differences in front of an audience of millions. Their duet is one of the more socially salubrious entries in our collective playlist, which is otherwise clotted with racist, sexist, classist and regionist warblings. And unlike the “Ebony and Ivory” of yore, “Accidental Racist” does not conclude that “people are the same wherever you go.” Instead, the song begins to grapple, however clumsily, with the fact that people are deeply different. One group’s cherished cultural symbols are sometimes another group’s heartaches or nightmares. How we as a multicultural society can reconcile these culture clashes is a much longer conversation.

What do you think about the duet? Is it really a cross-cultural bridge-building, or a poorly timed apology for the Confederate flag?

Jan 172013

Hazel and I once again contributed to Edge.org’s annual compendium of ideas. In response to the 2012 question, “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” we riffed on Descartes to summarize the big idea behind social and cultural psychology. 

“I think, therefore I am.” Cogito ergo sum. Remember this elegant and deep idea from René Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy? The fact that a person is contemplating whether she exists, Descartes argued, is proof that she, indeed, actually does exist. With this single statement, Descartes knit together two central ideas of Western philosophy: 1) thinking is powerful, and 2) individuals play a big role in creating their own I’s—that is, their psyches, minds, souls, or selves.

Most of us learn “the cogito” at some point during our formal education. Yet far fewer of us study an equally deep and elegant idea from social psychology: Other people’s thinking likewise powerfully shapes the I’s that we are. Indeed, in many situations, other people’s thinking has a bigger impact on our own thoughts, feelings, and actions than do the thoughts we conjure while philosophizing alone.

In other words, much of the time, “You think, therefore I am.” For better and for worse.

An everyday instance of how your thinking affects other people’s being is the Pygmalion effect. Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson captured this effect in a classic 1963 study. After giving an IQ test to elementary school students, the researchers told the teachers which students would be “academic spurters” because of their allegedly high IQs. In reality, these students’ IQs were no higher than those of the “normal” students. At the end of the school year, the researchers found that the “spurters’” had attained better grades and higher IQs than the “normals.” The reason? Teachers had expected more from the spurters, and thus given them more time, attention, and care. And the conclusion? Expect more from students, and get better results.

A less sanguine example of how much our thoughts affect other people’s I’s is stereotype threat. Stereotypes are clouds of attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that follow around a group of people. A stereotype in the air over African Americans is that they are bad at school. Women labor under the stereotype that they suck at math.

As social psychologist Claude Steele and others have demonstrated in hundreds of studies, when researchers conjure these stereotypes—even subtly, by, say, asking people to write down their race or gender before taking a test—students from the stereotyped groups score lower than the stereotype-free group. But when researchers do not mention other people’s negative views, the stereotyped groups meet or even exceed their competition. The researchers show that students under stereotype threat are so anxious about confirming the stereotype that they choke on the test. With repeated failures, they seek their fortunes in other domains. In this tragic way, other people’s thoughts deform the I’s of promising students.

As the planet gets smaller and hotter, knowing that “You think, therefore I am” could help us more readily understand how we affect our neighbours and how our neighbours affect us. Not acknowledging how much we impact each other, in contrast, could lead us to repeat the same mistakes.

Feb 152012

Pundits now invoke culture to explain all manner of tragedies and triumphs, from why a disturbed young man opens fire on a politician, to why African-American children struggle in school, to why the United States can’t establish democracy in Iraq, to why Asian factories build better cars. A quick click through a single morning’s media, for example, yields the following catch: gun culture, Twitter culture, ethical culture, Arizona culture, always-on culture, winner-take-all culture, culture of violence, culture of fear, culture of sustainability, culture of corporate greed.

Yet no one explains what, exactly, culture is, how it works, or how to change it for the better.

A cognitive tool that fills this gap is the culture cycle, a tool that not only simply describes how culture works, but also clearly prescribes how to make lasting change. The culture cycle is the iterative, recursive process by which 1) people create the cultures to which they later adapt, and 2) cultures shape people so that they act in ways that perpetuate their cultures. In other words, cultures and people (and some other primates) make each other up. This process involves four nested planes: individual selves (their thoughts, feelings, and actions); the everyday practices and artifacts that reflect and shape those selves; the institutions (such as education, law, and media) that afford or discourage certain everyday practices and artifacts; and pervasive ideas about what is good, right, and human that both influence and are influenced by all these levels. (See figure below). The culture cycle rolls for all types of social distinctions, from the macro (nation, race, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, social class, generation, etc.) to the micro (occupation, organization, neighborhood, hobby, genre preference, family, etc.)

One consequence of the culture cycle is that no action is caused by either individual psychological features or external influences. Both are always at work. Just as there is no such thing as a culture without agents, there are no agents without culture. Humans are culturally-shaped shapers. And so, for example, in the case of a school shooting it is overly simplistic to ask whether the perpetrator shot because of either a mental illness or because of his interactions with a hostile and bullying school climate, or with a particularly deadly cultural artifact (i.e., a gun), or with institutions that encourage that climate and allow access to that artifact, or with pervasive ideas and images that glorify resistance and violence. The better question, and the one that the culture cycle requires, is how do these four levels of forces interact? Indeed, researchers at the vanguard of public health contend that neither social stressors nor individual vulnerabilities are enough to produce most mental illnesses. Instead, the interplay of biology and culture, of genes and environments, of nature and nurture is responsible for most psychiatric disorders.

Social scientists succumb to another form of this oppositional thinking. For example, in the face of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of poor African-American residents “chose” not to evacuate the Gulf Coast, to quote most news accounts. More charitable social scientists had their explanations ready, and struggled to get their variables into the limelight. Of course they didn’t leave, said the psychologists, because poor people have an external locus of control, low intrinsic motivation, or low self-efficacy. Of course they didn’t leave, said the sociologists and political scientists, because their cumulative lack of access to adequate income, banking, education, transportation, healthcare, police protection, and basic civil rights makes staying put is their only option. Of course they didn’t leave, said the anthropologists, because their kin networks, religious faith, and historical ties held them there. Of course they didn’t leave, said the economists, because they didn’t have the material resources, knowledge, or financial incentives to get out.

The irony in the interdisciplinary bickering is that everyone is mostly right. But they are right in the same way that the blind men touching the elephant in the Indian proverb are right: the failure to integrate each field’s contributions makes everyone wrong and, worse, not very useful.

The culture cycle captures how these different levels of analyses relate to each other. Granted, our four-level process explanation is not as zippy as the single-variable accounts that currently dominate most public discourse. But it’s far simpler and accurate than the standard “it’s complicated” and “it depends” answers that more thoughtful experts often supply.

Moreover, built into the culture cycle are the instructions for how to reverse engineer it: a sustainable change at one level usually requires change at all four levels. There are no silver bullets. The ongoing U.S. Civil Rights Movement, for example, requires the opening of individual hearts and mind; and the mixing of people as equals in daily life, along with media representations thereof; and the reform of laws and policies; and fundamental revision of our nation’s idea of what a good human being is.

Just because people can change their cultures, however, does not mean that they can do so easily. A major obstacle is that most people don’t even realize that they have cultures. Instead, they think that they are standard-issue humans—they are normal; it’s all those other people who are deviating from the natural, obvious and right way to be.

Yet we are all part of multiple culture cycles. And we should be proud of that fact, for the culture cycle is our smart human trick. Because of it, we don’t have to wait for mutation or natural selection to allow us to range farther over the face of the earth, to extract nutrition from a new food source, or to cope with a change in climate. And as modern life becomes more complex, and social and environmental problems become more widespread and entrenched, people will need to understand and use the culture cycle more skillfully.