Sunday, April 18, 2010

Decisions, Bureaucrats, and Cultural Differences

Here's a bit from a NY Times Review of Books review of a psychology book by Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing. The book talks about discoveries in decision science:
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Iyengar is drawn to such cross-cultural comparisons. Consider an experiment she conducted with elementary-school children in San Francisco’s Japantown. Half were what Iyengar calls Anglo Ameri can, and half were the children of Japanese or Chinese immigrants who spoke their parents’ native language at home.

“Ms. Smith” showed each child six piles of word puzzles and six marking pens. Each pile contained one category of anagram — words about animals, food, San Francisco, etc. — and each marker was a different color. A third of the children were told to pick whichever category and marker they wanted to play with. Another third were told they should work on a specific category with a specific marker. With the final third, Ms. Smith riffled through some papers and pretended to relay instructions from the child’s mother. In the latter two cases, the category and marker were in fact the ones picked by the most recent child to select freely.

The two ethnic groups reacted differently. The Anglo kids solved the most anagrams and played the longest when they could pick their own puzzles and markers, while the Asian children did best when they thought they were following their mothers’ wishes.

To the Anglo children, their mothers’ instructions felt like bossy constraints. The Asians, by contrast, defined their own identities largely by their relationship with their mothers. Their preferences and their mothers’ wishes, Iyengar writes, “were practically one and the same.” Doing what they thought their mothers wanted was, in effect, their first choice.

Anglos and Asians did share one important reaction: “When the choices were made by Ms. Smith, a stranger, both groups of children felt the imposition and reacted negatively.” Just because people happily comply with the choices of an intimate — or, for that matter, an authority they’ve selected themselves — does not mean they want bureaucratic strangers making their decisions. Advocates who want to use psychology experiments to justify choice-limiting public policy should keep that lesson in mind.
This bit scares me. I accept that the science is right, but it goes up against my value system which places high value on freedom of choice and opposes doctrinaire religions:
Iyengar began her scholarly exploration of choice with an undergraduate research project. She suspected that religiously observant people who obey lots of behavioral restrictions would feel unable to control their own lives and thus pessimistic. To test this hypothesis, she interviewed more than 600 people from nine different religions, ranging from fundamentalists to liberals. She surveyed their religious beliefs and practices, asked questions to test optimism and had them fill out a mental health questionnaire. What she found surprised her.

“Members of more fundamentalist faiths experienced greater hope, were more optimistic when faced with adversity and were less likely to be depressed than their counterparts,” she writes. “Indeed, the people most susceptible to pessimism and depression were the Unitarians, especially those who were atheists. The presence of so many rules didn’t debilitate people; instead, it seemed to empower them. Many of their choices were taken away, and yet they experienced a sense of control over their lives.”
My bottom line is that I would rather be free, intelligent, and suffer depression, than to be enslaved to a dogma and happy in my chains. Actually I'm a pretty happy go-lucky guy. I favour psychological theories such as Dan Gilbert's in the book Stumbling on Happiness.

The reviewer, Virginia Postrel, has her own blog site, is an interesting libertarian thinker, and one of the few people who voluntarily donated a kidney to a non-relative, a stranger that she had read about.

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