Thursday, July 05, 2012
Fundamental Attribution Error, Nakajima, and Endless Loop Tapes
Fundamental Attribution Error, Nakajima, and Endless Loop Tapes, a photo by timtak on Flickr.
Professor Nakajima is a recently retired professor of Kantian philosophy. He is, I believe, highly Westernised. He spent a considerable amount of time in Germany, presumably speaks German, and studies and presumably loves one of the most Western of philosophers: Kant.
It takes leaving ones culture to know it. Normally ones own culture is so obviously-the-normal-way-of-doing-things that it is transparent. It is only those that have participated in other cultures that can see there own. Professor Nakajima was sufficiently deculturized to realise that public announcements of various sorts in Japan are strange.
Japan is awash with public announcements in the form of recorded or electronically simulated voices that blare out messages such as vending machines or cash dispensers that greet their customers, buses that announce that they are reversing, election trucks that blare out linguistically meaningless recordings of a politician thanking people for their support, and endless loop tape recorders that blare out the special offers in retail outlets as pictured in this photo. The endless loop tape recorder shown here stood at the entrance to a local electronics store endlessly shouting out the special offers on sale at the store.
In the first few years of living in Japan I used to stop in front of these endless loop tape recorders and attempt to understand what they were saying. One of the reasons that I did so was because my Japanese language ability was insufficient. But even when I was able to understand the language of the tape, I still stopped, and listened while Japanese store goers walked on by, seemingly oblivious. I found the endless loop tape recorder arresting, more worthy of attention, and very strange.
When I first arrived I arrived in Narita airport in Tokyo, I got on a horizontal escalator / conveyor belt walkway (what are they called?) and shortly before the walkway came to an end a voice came out at foot level warning me that the walkway would end. I picked up my feet as if I might step on the unseen announcer that must (I felt) be hiding underneath the moving hand rail. Shortly thereafter, when I first purchased a canned drink from a vending machine in Japan that spoke, I felt that there was a woman (in Japan it is generally a woman's voice) hiding inside the vending machine thanking me for my custom.
I am now used to all the depersonalised voices that one hears in Japan. It no longer surprises me when buses 'say' "reversing, reversing, reversing." It no longer surprises me when bullet trains 'say' "Please don't bring dangerous things onto this train."
Nakajima (brilliant though his observations are) explains this phenomenon -- the tendency for there to be disembodied voices in Japan and their strangeness -- using the same old same old collectivism vs individualism trope. He points out that private speech, such as by students in class, or by people using cell phones on trains (I am not sure if he used these examples) is repressed, not-allowed-in-Japan, and argues that speech is only allowed when it is a public, disembodied, announcement.
[He does not note for instance that Western city-scapes are required to be uniform by planning permission rules or that Japanese fashion is the zaniest in the world]
Nakajima also complains (if this is the right word) of the loudness of these announcements which prevent private speech, or western style (Kim, 2002) "thought".
It seems to me that my issue with these endless tape recorders, and other linguistic public announcements is rather directly associated with the Fundamental Attribution Error.
The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to the tendency of people to assume that behaviours are the result of traits.
According to this theory, we, humans, have an erroneous tendency to believe for instance that if a person is late to a meeting then that is because that person is not a punctual individual.
Most of the research on the fundamental attribution error, however, concentrates on one behaviour: reading out loud from texts that are constrained. When Westerners listen to someone read out loud, then even if they know that the text that the person they are listening to is reading a text which that person has been forced to read, Westerners still believe that the person in question believes in the purport of the text. The text as read out loud is felt to be expressive of the mind, person, self, of the individual.
Japanese people however are far less likely to feel that a reading out loud represents the true feelings of the person that is doing the reading.
This difference is ascribed to the purported fact that Japanese are, and realise themselves to be, less individual, more collectivist, more context dependent. When a Japanese person hears someone reading a text then they do not assume that the text represents that person, merely that the person is (as is the case under constrained conditions) merely conforming to pressure, because social pressure is rife in Japan, and free self expression is not allowed in Japan.
This, the conventional interpretation is hogwash (false). The Japanese are as free to express themselves as anyone else, or more so. But the medium or mode of their self expression is Nacalianly different. That the Japanese can create cityscapes, products, images, fashion in such zany abandon testifies to this fact.
The reason that Westerners (and Westernised Japanese) find mechanically produced, or constrained speech to be representative of traits is because that we Westerners believe that we are speech, that thinking is speech, that the person is speech. The Western self is a narrative. The strangeness of these endless tapes that announce products, and other announcements produced by machines, are the same as the reading-out-loud used in Fundamental (!) Attribution Error research, and their potency can be explained in the same way.
Westerners believe that they are themselves narrations, speeches. Speech is thought. Speech is felt to be accompanied by (chimerical) ideas. Speech is felt to be the product of, the essence of a person.
And so, Westerner that I am, when I heard those mechanical/recorded/computerised voices in Japan, I presumed them to be, or desired them to be, from a person. Japanese public announcements expose the lie of my being: speech does not imply an existence, nor is it necessarily accompanied by an existence. Speech is just speech. There are no "ideas." Speech is noise. With regard to speech (but not to self-representational images) Japanese people realise this.
This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.