Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

The Weird Wildness Of The West

I think it probably comes as little surprise to anyone here that the Western mindsight is quite different from those found elsewhere, so I won't dwell on the weirdness (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) aspect. While the article headlines with how this came about, I found it more interesting how it notes that there are both positive and negative aspects to this. There's a lot of (quite understandable) self-loathing among certain western demographics, a desire for us all to be less selfish and more society-oriented, and yet :

In one of the videos, the child assembled a necklace that precisely matched the one made by the demonstrator in its bead colours and sequence. In the other, the child produced a necklace with a different sequence of coloured beads. When asked which child was “smarter”, 88% of adults in Vanuatu pointed to the “conformer”, compared to only 19% of US respondents. When asked why they selected the non-conformers as “smarter”, the adults in the US explained that the child was “creative”.

While there's a lot of "we must think less about ourselves and more for the good of society !" vibes bandied about, I think few westerners would think that means we must all conform - this "herd mentality" is often decried as the very thing we want to avoid. There's definitely an ironic element of "you must think for yourself and agree with me !" to all this, or, "don't conform with those people, conform with me instead !".

When asked who was better behaved, 78% of adults in Vanuatu thought the conformer was better behaved while less than half (44%) of US respondents felt similarly. Instead, most Americans (56%) thought the conforming and non-conforming children were equally well-behaved.

I would say that in an exercise like this, which basically has no consequences whatsoever, it doesn't matter unless the child was told explicitly that it's important to follow things exactly. I would only label the behaviour good or bad depending on the goal and the circumstance. Being creative when making necklaces is a lot different than when, say, designing ships. More interesting is the implication that those in Vanuatu think conformity is inherently a good thing, though again this is probably laden with situational caveats.

Unlike much of the world today – and most people who have ever lived – Weird people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, guilt-ridden and analytical in their thinking style. They focus on themselves – their attributes, accomplishments and aspirations – over relationships and roles. When reasoning, Weird people tend to look for abstract categories with which to organise the world. They simplify complex phenomena by breaking them down into discrete elements and assigning properties – whether by imagining types of particles, pathogens or personalities.

That all sounds very bad, but :

Despite their seeming self-obsession, Weird people tend to stick to impartial rules and can be quite trusting, fair and cooperative toward strangers. Emotionally, Weird people are relatively shameless, less constrained by the eyes of others, but often wracked by guilt as they fail to live up to their own self-imposed standards.

And the flip side of this :

Analyses reveal that people from societies rooted in more intensive kin-based institutions show greater conformity, less individualism, more holistic thinking, fewer guilty experiences and less willingness to trust strangers. 

Ironic that being individualistic might make you fairer towards others ! Yet it makes a degree of sense. : if you see others first and foremost as individuals, you're less likely to judge them as opposing group members. So the questions this raises for me are : (1) what, if any, is the difference between tribalism and conformism ? and (2) are societies which are more conformist even more polarised against other groups than in the Western countries ?

To the first one I would say there's a world of difference between those who say, "I want this group to be better than it is and I want you to join me in helping achieve this" as opposed to, "I want this group to be the best by making other groups worse and hurting anyone who isn't a member already". In essence, this is the difference between patriotism and nationalism. I don't know if there are more appropriate, more generalised terms though.

To the second, I don't know. Trying to improve your own group seems orthogonal to how you interact with others. But at the same time, it would seem to follow that if you see conformity as a good thing then anyone doing something different would be viewed with more suspicion, but I know next to nothing about non-western politics. It would be a wretched irony indeed if trying to get everyone to pull together for the common good led to even more hatred and division than getting everyone to think for themselves.

Still, while there's a natural tendency to insist, when you deem a certain behaviour better than others, that everyone should think and act in that way, context is often critical. Both collectivist and individualist mindsets comes with costs and benefits. The article is an important reminder that blending the best of both worlds is tricky indeed.

How the 'Western mind' was shaped by the Medieval Church

Most research on human psychology focuses on Western societies, but the way people in the West think can be traced to changes in family structures in the Middle Ages.


  1. Am I alone in fearing that our western societies are, this year, realy falling in to conformism? There have been some really distrubing incidents involving censorship and outright hatred against minority viewpoints, and yet the wider public, or atleast the media's prortrayal of the wider public, makes it seem that nowadays "stepping on those who stand out" has become acceptable all over the supposedly free west?
    P.S. patriotism vs nationalism, great cartoon on that, says broadly what you did in your paragraph

    1. That comic is PERFECT. I've been trying for a while to persuade everyone that patriotism <> nationalism. A country is so much more than whatever particular variety of political lunacy happens to be currently in vogue.

      Drawing on themes I've explored elsewhere (but can't be bothered to find links to right now), part of the polarisation today is due to an explosive alignment of forces. The US example is that political parties were (in the quite recent past) based on the size of government; Puerto Rican politics today is utterly dominated by the issue of statehood. Neither of these are inherently moral viewpoints, which allows political parties to be genuinely broad churches.

      But, when alignment is based on moral opinion, it's both much easier to attract members (especially the mroe zealous) and drive the parties apart. The difficulty : it's very difficult to avoid aligning with a group who shares your own moral stance (or at least avoid those which are opposed to your own). If you see one party as moral and one as immoral, who could possibly face a difficulty in choosing between them ? This perhaps explains why even movements based around toleration can themselves become enormously intolerant (there's a nice summary of that in a specific context here : - dunno if it's true in the specific but the sentiment is interesting)

      All that said, I do very strongly agree with the Toleration Paradox. While many opinions are seen with unnecessary moral disdain, there ARE some which are abjectly evil. There ARE horrible, monstrous, bullshitting bigoted idiots in the world who need to be fought, not appeased. There are no easy answers here.

      Lastly, it's worth pointing out that polarisation doesn't follow a simple linear trajectory. The situation was less polarised in the recent past, but go back a little further and you've got Bevan calling the Tories "lower than vermin"; go back just a little further again and you've got outright fascism and Communism. Things can get better as well as worse.


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