Understanding people's behavior in different cultures
Archiving from PMs

Kanad Wrote:If US serials reflect US culture, then I have a strange observation.
The serials that I have seen are Wonder Years, Modern Family, Big Bang Theory, How I met your mother, Dr House, Dexter, Switched at Birth and a few others that I don't remember now.

In most of these there is a constant talk about "You got me fired...", "You got me in trouble"... "Nice going butthead"... There looks like evaluation of an action is done based on results. And not just in a cursory fashion, but more to do with innate thought process. This utilitarian culture strikes as odd to me. Especially because in our culture we talk about intent more than results.

Arvind Wrote:A consequentialist mindset can be discerned routinely in Indian households in conversations surrounding school homework, where "Don't you want to be in the merit list?" is a more commonly asked nudging question than "Don't you want to be the best student you can be?". One reason for humanities courses becoming less popular is the widespread, and very consequential, assumption in society that it is only 'professional courses' that secure material prosperity[1]. Academic choices seem less contingent on aptitude and more on projected success in the job market and subsequently, the 'marriage market'. While traditional marriage vows across cultures have some counterpart of vowing to stay together irrespective of consequences ('for better or worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health'[2]), marital alliances especially in the Indian setting seem largely influenced by considerations of whether the match will work and how it will perform, rather than from a mindset of staying together 'no matter what'.

Even while a self-proclaimed orthodox traditionalist in India may claim to be following scriptural injunctions to the letter out of a sense of duty with no regard for consequences, there are always background assumptions regarding incentives that maybe implicit, indirect and often promised in an afterlife. Nevertheless, the promises of reward are there, and quite influential in practice. An arranged marriage is ostensibly a submission to grihasthashrama as a social responsibility, but there is also a reading that treats such marriage itself as a long-term yajna that produces merit here and in the afterlife. Outcomes in the here and now seem to feature less in advertisements of traditional Hindu practices, not exactly because there is genuine conviction conferring indifference towards outcomes, but more because these beliefs operate in a system of priorities where the outcomes that matter are not individual and immediate but placed in a cosmic afterlife setting. For instance, in the Bhagavad Gita, there is indeed an outcome which the wise sages of old seem to care about even as they urge 'desireless action', namely the outcome of 'lokasangraha', loosely, 'maintenance of the world order'[3]. On a lighter note, Dr. Sheldon Cooper's quip here[4] does make the point that Indians don't obey the Smritis simply because they are Smritis (ie. not on strictly 'categorical' grounds) but because they also simultaneously believe, often literally, in cosmic reward and punishment (ie. consequentialist considerations).

Utilitarian motives are difficult to discern not only because they are obscured in a belief system whose time horizon exceeds lifetimes (and contemporary credulity), but also because they operate in the social milieu of a 'high-context society'[5] where rewards of actions are seldom rule-based or on their own merits but more often negotiated on a case-to-case basis with the history of relationships coming into play. To this day, many Indian families carefully inventorize the gifts received during a wedding (which of course, is a 'wedding between families'), listed carefully recording who gave the gifts. It is of course assumed that an identical gift given by two different families would not call for identical return gifts, given the high-context nature of gift-giving which means that a family to whom 'more is owed' deserves a more fulsome gesture of thanks than a family that has become recently acquainted. Anthropologist David Graeber, as cited by S Anand in his Chennai Freethinkers Thinkfest 2013 talk[6], speaks of what maybe called 'barter in slow motion' that is prevalent in traditional societies, which means that accounts are not explicit and immediately settled, thus rendering utilitarian motives opaque but not absent. In such exchanges, ritual assertions of a relationship's worth seem more frequent than numerical reciprocation, conveying an illusion of indifference to utilitarian considerations which are definitely present underneath.

People seem to exhibit very difference behaviors of compliance and commitment when consequences are made explicit to them rather than when they are not. A recent study, not without its controversies, suggests that people from privileged backgrounds who are by-and-large shielded from adverse consequences of their actions during their upbringing, carry this indifference to consequences in their later life and end up being more prone to breach of rules[7]. Indian parenting styles where parents typically fund their children's education totally, differs in one respect from American parenting where college-going teenagers are commonly encouraged to achieve at least partial financial independence by working alongside their studies from high-school onwards. Being brought face to face with consequences, a part of growing up which some societies hasten and others delay, may have a bearing on how responsible people feel about outcomes and to what extent outcomes feature in the discourse on social relations and public policy.


[1] Forum thread: Mythological Revisionism as Historic Revisionism (See Paragraph 4 in the post)

[2] Forum thread: Civil Matrimony vs Holy Matrimony (video with Anglican wedding vows)

[3] Forum thread: Students of Human Rights (Discussion on whether the Bhagavad Gita upholds a categorical or a hypothetical imperative)

[4] Clip from The Big Bang Theory, Season 4 Episode 16 (Sheldon Cooper on the Manusmriti)

[5] Forum thread: Western Science and Eastern Mysticism: Framing Issues (Last para in post on high- and low-context societies)

[6] No Enlightenment With Caste, talk by Navayana publisher S Anand at Thinkfest 2013

[7] Money on the Mind, PBS News item: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuqGrz-Y_Lc
Blurbed reshare

Kanad Wrote:Seems like we have our own utilitarian baggage. But I see a crucial difference. Being utilitarian about future i.e. designing rules based on cost-benefit analysis vs being utilitarian about the past. And now after reading your comment, it looks like that is the difference that I was talking about initially.

To give an example, imagine the following scene [forgive me for the cheesy example again]
Boy in love with girl. But not able to confess his love. Boy's friend walks in to help. Lets the girl know about the boy's feeling.
Case1: Girls feels the same and gets happy and the end
Case2: Girl feels boy is gutless to have not talked directly and hence walks away and the end
Now what I see in Hollywood movies or US serials is that Boy's reaction to his friends depends on how the output goes.
But I see that in Bolloywood movies the Friend's intention is what would earn him good points irrespective of the output.

Whether its just my view or reality, I just realized this for the first time that there is an interesting perspective of 'tense' angle to Utilitarianism. Always knew why punishment is utilitarian, looking at hindsight. Never grasped the entirety of the deal.

Arvind Wrote:A society's 'time-perspective'[1] is being recognized in social psychology as an attribute that is informative about how members of that society treat transactions and relationships. Considerations influenced by time-perspective such as 'duration' and 'propinquity' feature explicitly in the work of early utilitarian theorists[2a] and can be discerned in some form in texts from antiquity as well[2b], besides contemporary policy attitudes towards punishment and compensation[2c]. Differences in the way friendship is approached in India and America may perhaps at least in part be understood in terms of differences in time-perspective between these respective societies.

An instance of a friend's performance being tested rather than presence being cherished for its own sake, can be found, leaving aside Bollywood for a minute, in the Ramayana 4:12:26[3a]. Sugreeva, who had challenged Vaali due to a duel assuming that Rama 'had his back' is worsted in battle while Rama is unable to tell the twins apart and fulfill his part of the contract. Sugreeva says: "Showing your dexterity you encouraged me to invite Vali for fight, but you got me battered by my enemy, what is this done by you." It is almost as if Sugreeva would have said, "Nice going, butthead!" if only Rama weren't armed and dangerous. In Sugreeva's defense, we might say that the 'oath of friendship' he had made with Rama was also a political and military alliance with its share of obligations. The Ramayana however puts such dialogue with a rent-seeking attitude regarding friendship in the mouth of Sugreeva who is portrayed as a 'less evolved' being, carefully portraying the idealized protagonist Rama as someone who is shown to stand by his friends no matter what without petty insistence on his side of the bargain. Later in the epic in 4:31:7, Rama is portrayed as magnanimously desisting from asserting obligation[3b], even under the grave provocation posed by Sugreeva's procrastination in initiating the search for Seeta.

No culture seems without its instances of both 'friendship for its own sake' and 'friendships of convenience' both in fiction and reality. The archetypally Indian notion of an 'extended family' may have the result of childhood friends being treated 'like family' more often, with a greater degree of acceptance and lower expectations of any 'purposefulness' in the interaction. A childhood friend overly affectionately called a langotiya-yaar (going now by more urbane-sounding neologisms like chuddy-buddy or diaper-dost) is a permanent fixture in popular culture portrayals, fulfilling a role of 'just being there' having no other need to justify his presence. Friendships outside of such a 'family' umbrella, which would by-and-large encompass all friendships in societies without an active notion of an 'extended family', are likelier to come with an inbuilt implicit demand of earning one's place in a circle. An idea of 'friendships with a mission' such as buddy systems[4] would perhaps not naturally have occurred as an idea in a society like India where 'friendship with a mission' sounds something like 'sibling-hood with a mission' and it is enough to be 'just friends'. It is an interesting hypothesis that reel-life friends in Hollywood are more often expected to 'pull their weight' than reel-life friends in Bollywood who are only expected to 'be there', and it will be useful to see concrete examples from films for both.

[1] Philip Zimbardo, The Secret Powers of Time, RSA http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3oIiH7BLmg
[2a] Felicific Calculus, wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felicific_calculus
[2b] Forum Thread: Morality, Liberty and Happiness (Para 2 in post) http://nirmukta.net/Thread-Morality-libe...01#pid7301
[2c] Hang Death Penalty, Nirmukta article comment trail http://nirmukta.com/2012/05/02/hang-deat...ment-39862
[3a] Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kaanda 4:12:26 http://www.valmikiramayan.net/utf8/kish/...tm#Verse26
[3b] Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kaanda 4:31:7 http://www.valmikiramayan.net/utf8/kish/...rame.htm#7
[4] Buddy system, wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddy_system

Kanad Wrote:More than half way through the social psychology course, I am beginning to realize that my observations make better sense if causal attribution is considered. The course mentions that individuals shaped by western culture make more "dispositional" causal attribution as compared to situational attribution. Collectivistic asian culture seem to do that less.

Arvind Wrote:My intro to the dispositional/situation terminology was via this clip and it seems to relate to the question raised here.
Dispositional causal attribution in Western culture may have been culturally bolstered by the Belief in Pure Evil (BPE) expressed as a personification of evil that is common in Abrahamic theology, which in itself maybe viewed as a special case (or variant) of the Greek idea of essentialism.
The good-evil dichotomy is not a very central feature in religion before the advent of Zoroastrianism/Mazdaism, the first major monotheism, as Robert Winston notes here. Earlier Oriental experiments with religion were not centered around such a binary and were not event-driven in preparation for Judgment or an apocalypse, but were rather process-driven, either pleasing deities or seeking enlightenment in a long-drawn fashion. The central Buddhist concept of Dependent Origination ,coupled with the rejection of the notion of an essential Self,both of which are commonly understood as expressed here, is an archetypal situational framework that continues to be the leitmotif of efforts like the 14th Dalai Lama's 'Secular Ethics' initiative and an acknowledged influence on other secular ethicists such as Tom Clark.
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(24-Jan-2014, 10:21 PM)arvindiyer Wrote: A society's 'time-perspective'[1] is being recognized in social psychology as an attribute that is informative about how members of that society treat transactions and relationships.
[1] Philip Zimbardo, The Secret Powers of Time, RSA http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3oIiH7BLmg

The following New Yorker article, which also lists some of the prevalent ways in which researchers from different disciplines define well-being, addresses primarily the following question:
Do the Poor Have More Meaningful Lives?

The article is about psychologists' attempts to address a curious mismatch they found in some worldwide survey results. Quoting from the New Yorker piece:
Quote: In the paper, Oishi and Diener found that people from wealthy countries were generally happier than people from poor countries. No surprise there. But they also found that people from poor countries tended to view their lives as more meaningful.

A resolution of sorts, bringing to bear the influence of 'time perspective', is attempted by the team of Roy Baumeister (whose work on will-power was discussed earlier in the forums here):

Quote:The researchers found that people were happiest when their needs and desires were met in the present, but that this immediate fulfillment “was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness.” Respondents derived meaning from considering the whole of their lives, including the past and future.
Perhaps because poverty strips people of happiness in the short term, it forces them to take the long view—to focus on the relationships they have with their children, their gods, and their friends, which become more meaningful over time.

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