Thursday, November 28, 2013
It was the Neck-tie! Culture and judgement of Causal Relevance
Choi and his collegues (2003) asked Korean and US subjects to consider a murder incident where a student had murdered his research supervisor. They were then shown a list of 40 factors and asked which of them were irrelevant in terms of motive.
The list included items such as the following: "The professor rejected the student's graduation thesis," "The professor criticised the student in front of others," "The professor used a PC not a Mac," "The graduate student did not like the professors' neck-tie." It was found that while North Americans considered only the big life changing factors (such as failing the student's thesis) relevant, the Korean subjects were significantly less likely to strike other items off list, considering in some case, factors such as the colour of professors' tie to be a contributing factor in the occurrence of the murder.
First of all, despite what Westerners say, I think that the Koreans are not being unrealistic. Take the weather for instance. The hero of Camus' The Outsider ended up killing an Arab partly because it was a hot sunny day, and there is well known relationship between elevated temperatures and violent crime. When conflict is brewing, the fact that it is a hot day can be the final straw.
Choi et al. (2003) explain East Asian sensitivity to the complexity of causality in terms of Masuda and Nisbett's (2001) brilliant theory of analytic and holistic thought. The Koreans are being holistic and taking more factors into consideration.
What Choi does not often mention (I asked him at a conference) is that when the method was reversed, and Koreans were asked, after they had imagined the murder, which factors out of this list are relevant, then they chose no more factors than the Americans. Why is this? Why do the Koreans cease to be more 'holistic' when the choice is presented in this way?
My answer is, as always, that the cultural divide hinges on the relative importance of language and vision. Westerners decide that a factor is relevant if they can construct a compelling narrative for the killing. "He murdered his professor because his professor failed his graduation thesis" is compelling, but "He murdered his professor because he did not like his tie" sounds like a joke.
The Koreans on the other hand are trying to get their imagination around the event, putting themselves into the position of the student. Using their visual imagination they can therefore neither reject factors which it is suggested were present - such as the weather, or the neck tie which might have been the breaking point - nor include factors which they had not imagined. This is because, in both Korea and Japan, language is subservient to vision. Language describes the visual world. On its own it is a lot of bumf (rikutsu).
Camus. A. (1942) L’Étranger. Libraire Gallimard.
Choi, I., Dalal, R., Kim-Prieto, C., & Park, H. (2003). Culture and judgement of causal relevance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(1), 46. Retrieved from psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/84/1/46/
Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R. E. (2001). Attending holistically versus analytically: comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 81(5), 922.
This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.