The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'collectivism'
One of the most striking differences between European and Asian societies is the question of individualism versus collectivism. This arguably goes beyond the question of individual rights and social obligations, and into the way people think about entities versus systems:
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. Chances are, the Japanese will pick the monkey and the banana, because they have a functional relationship: the former eats the latter. The Brit will select the panda and the monkey, because they are both mammals. As Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan described in his 2003 book, "The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why," Westerners typically see classifications where Asians see relationships. He means "see" literally. When students in one study looked at tanks holding a large fish, a bunch of small fry and the usual aquarium plants and rocks, the Japanese later said they'd seen lots of background elements; the Americans saw the big fish.Now a new hypothesis from evolutionary psychology suggests that these cognitive traits could have been the result of natural selection driven by disease-causing microbes, i.e., in pathogen-rich environments, tendencies towards collectivism were adaptive (i.e., you were more likely to survive), whereas where there were fewer pathogens, populations had the luxury of evolving more ruggedly individualistic tendencies:
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; xenophobia keeps away strangers and their strange bugs. Respect for traditions also works: ways of preparing food (using hot pepper, say, which kills microbes), rules about hygiene and laws about marriage (wed only in-group members, whose microbes you're probably immune to) likely arose to keep pathogens at bay. "Conformity helps maintain these buffers against disease," says Corey Fincher of the University of New Mexico; mavericks are dangerous. In places with a high prevalence of pathogens, such cultural traits—which happen to be the hallmarks of societies that value the group over the individual—would be adaptive. Put another way, societies that arose in pathogen-rife regions and did not have such traits would be wiped out by disease. Societies that did have them would survive.
When the scientists examined how closely collectivism tracked the prevalence of pathogens, they found a strong correlation, they will report in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In general, tropical regions have more pathogens, and societies there tend to be more group-oriented than those at higher latitudes. Ecuador, Panama, Pakistan, India, China and Japan are the world's most group-first societies—and historically have had the highest prevalence of natural pathogens due to their climate and topography. The most individualistic are in Northern Europe and the United States, where there have historically been fewer native pathogens. For years scientists have scratched their heads over why collectivism declines with distance from the equator, and why living in colder regions should promote individualism (you'd think polar people would want to huddle together more). The answer seems to be that equatorial regions breed more pathogens.The research acknowledges that nurture and culture play a significant role (i.e., Asian immigrants in America soon become as individualistic as other members of their adoptive society), so any genetic bias may be a subtle one. Though when a number of individuals form a civilisation, it may only take a slight cognitive bias to change the basic cultural assumptions that evolve.
On the other hand, given that the research is of American and Canadian (i.e., Western) origin, perhaps it rests on a western, individualist cultural bias. Which doesn't necessarily invalidate it, though it makes one wonder how a Japanese or Chinese evolutionary psychologist would theorise the origins of the differences between individualist and collectivist societies.
The Guardian has an excerpt from a recent book by Barbara Ehrenreich, which postulates that the rise of subjective individual self-awareness and the decline of the collective celebrations common in mediæval times may have touched off an epidemic of depression we've been living in ever since:
And very likely the phenomena of this early "epidemic of depression" and the suppression of communal rituals and festivities are entangled in various ways. It could be, for example, that, as a result of their illness, depressed individuals lost their taste for communal festivities and even came to view them with revulsion. But there are other possibilities. First, that both the rise of depression and the decline of festivities are symptomatic of some deeper, underlying psychological change, which began about 400 years ago and persists, in some form, in our own time. The second, more intriguing possibility is that the disappearance of traditional festivities was itself a factor contributing to depression.
One approaches the subject of "deeper, underlying psychological change" with some trepidation, but fortunately, in this case, many respected scholars have already visited this difficult terrain. "Historians of European culture are in substantial agreement," Lionel Trilling wrote in 1972, "that in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, something like a mutation in human nature took place." This change has been called the rise of subjectivity or the discovery of the inner self and since it can be assumed that all people, in all historical periods, have some sense of selfhood and capacity for subjective reflection, we are really talking about an intensification, and a fairly drastic one, of the universal human capacity to face the world as an autonomous "I", separate from, and largely distrustful of, "them".
But the new kind of personality that arose in 16th- and 17th-century Europe was by no means as autonomous and self-defining as claimed. For far from being detached from the immediate human environment, the newly self-centered individual is continually preoccupied with judging the expectations of others and his or her own success in meeting them: "How am I doing?" this supposedly autonomous "self" wants to know. "What kind of an impression am I making?"If this hypothesis is correct, then the epidemic of depression and mental illness that began in the 1600s (which Ehrenreich provides supporting evidence for, in historical records) is a side-effect of a step in the evolution of human psychology that began at around that time, with the pressures of communication, trade and social organisation dragging the human mind kicking and screaming from a sleepy collective life to a more dynamic way of living. In this case, a lot of the anxiety, angst and low-level distress people feel routinely is not a result of human nature, but rather human nature reacting against "unnatural" circumstances. Small wonder that many have sought relief in an annihilation of the self, from hippie communes to Communist utopias, from meditation to severe religious submission, from the Arcadian pastoral utopias throughout art (Tolkien, William Morris and the Arcade Fire to name three examples off the top of my head) to the transcendental nihilism of drugs (take, for example, Lou Reed wishing he had been born "a thousand years ago" in Heroin).
So where does that leave us? Perhaps, given enough time (hundreds if not thousands of years), human psychology will evolve into depression-resistant directions, assuming that some kind of technological catastrophe doesn't cut the process short. Genetic evolution is slow, but cultural evolution is faster, and it could be argued that our technologies and cultural institutions are part of the "extended phenotype" of humanity; that the invention of antidepressant drugs is an adaptation to these changes in our environment. It's a crude, reactionary adaptation, merely treating the symptoms; though there is hope on the horizon. There has recently been a lot of focus on the study of the psychology of happiness, and what factors make for environments conducive to sustainable happiness. With any luck, this will lead to improvements in areas from urban planning to social policy to economics.
Then again, if the hypothesis is true, would it be possible to somehow get the best of both worlds? Could one have the happy, fulfilling collective connectedness people (allegedly) had before the 16th century, whilst retaining the gains made since then? Or is the very presence of subjective thought, the demarcation between the self and the collective, poisonous?
(On the other hand, L. Ron Hubbard claims that depression comes from humanity's early ancestor, the clam, and the tension between the desire to open and close its hinge.)