East Meets West and I’m Sandwiched In Between

One of the main themes that stuck with me this week was the idea of self-concept and how it varies across cultures. I was born in India, but I’ve lived my entire life in the United States as the only child of two immigrant parents. My father adjusted to American values and social perceptions as he has been working full time in an office environment for the past two decades. However, my mother has had intermittent jobs but she spent the majority of my childhood as a housewife or working smaller, independent jobs such as babysitting. So, I spent my childhood growing up with a very Indian mother with strict eastern values that came up as a persistent point of disconnect and conflict.

The western priority on individual achievement and potential was quite a foreign sentiment to my younger self. When my mom expressed her desire for me to become a doctor it wasn’t one of “I believe you have the potential to succeed as a physician”. Rather, it was based on the idea that being a doctor brings honor to the family, and will be a stable job that can support your family. Her focus was always on how we were a part of a larger society – even though her society (family) was a couple thousand miles away and had little impact on her daily life. As I’ve grown up, much of my self-concept came from western ideals. In my 20 statements, I am slow to mention my social or family connections. I list that I’m a biology major, that I’m a dancer, that I’m funny…and quite a while later I mention that I’m a daughter. But that was not always the case, and in fact, eastern norms still pervade my perceptions. When I think of why I want to become a doctor, I know 90%+ comes from an intrinsic motivation and interest in the subject, but my mom’s words of how it fits into our social relationships is still in the back of my head.

I see this interdependent view present to a far more extreme level when I visit India. And perhaps I might be stretching it, but it might be a reason things like the castes system not only exist, but thrive. The idea that someone is a unique individual and can stand out from the crowd challenges established social conventions. Instead, delegating people into sub-groups and placing the focus of the self on how you fit into the grander picture is the norm. These notions are also seen in eastern religions, like Hinduism, and show the extent to which the interdependent self is embedded into society. In Hinduism, the cyclic nature of a soul is stressed and the interconnectedness of it to the world is a huge focus. This isn’t the case in western religions that maintain a far more linear and independent approach. So, it seems that introspection and self-observation are the most prominent methods of forming the self-concept in western societies. While, in eastern cultures the influence of others is a far more significant factor. Festinger’s social comparison theory can be seen pervading Indian culture. There is constant social comparison and much of the social behavior can be explained by the need to reaffirm the self in comparison to those around you. I see my mother’s advice and my father’s advice differ in this aspect especially. She focuses far more on how my peers and family members are doing while my father stresses the importance of my hard work and pursuit of my particular passions.

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counterfactual thinking is dangerous!

I love the concept of counterfactual reasoning, and I often remind myself of it when I feel regret for silly things. My mom used to tell me that the people who seem to have it all are often the most unhappy, and I believe some of that wisdom is grounded in the notion of counterfactual reasoning. Having two perfectly good options usually ends up with more regret than only having one mediocre option. I distinctly remember this while I was choosing which college to attend, so much so that a part of me actually just wished I only had one option. I would like to see if there are differences in the types of alternatives that people from different socioeconomic levels come up with for the same proposed scenario – if there is an objective way to measure how realistic the possibilities are. I would think people of higher SES would come up with more realistic alternatives and thus feel far more regret.

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Judgmental Heuristics

Learning about low-effort (automatic) thinking this week was particularly interesting. All of a sudden I became aware of all of the snap judgments and assumptions I make on a daily basis. I am also not immediately conscious of many of these mental shortcuts. Usually, I realize the cognitive reason behind the way my behavior changed after leaving a social situation. Furthermore, I was kind of appalled at all the assumptions I make about people. Though they don’t really negatively affect my interactions since I do try to always keep an open mind, they do have the potential to hinder possibilities. For example, I went to karaoke with a group of people I don’t know all too well – friends of friends. There is one girl, short and small and seemed quiet when I first met her. I placed her right into my schema and really made no effort to disprove it: I thought, she is shy, probably awkward, sheltered and probably a bit judgmental (how ironic). At karaoke, however, she started belting out intense screamo music and I have never been more surprised. These judgmental heuristics that guide the way I perceive people are so often wrong. I wonder how much they have changed in the past couple years as my world view has changed.

Regardless of how much my schemas of people and the judgmental heuristics have changed as I’ve grown up, I do think how I react to them has changed a lot. Just the act of realizing that you have made a snap judgment about someone is a good first step towards loosening the grip of low-effort thinking on guiding your actions. I am far more ready to accept deviations from what I have as my accepted base world view.

I’d like to observe the effects of consciously fighting against heuristics I impose on myself as well. The Seinfeld clip of George all of a sudden doing everything opposite to what he thought was the best idea was particularly interesting for me. As innately social beings, I find that people change their behaviors to accommodate what they believe a social setting expects of us. At least in new social situations I often find myself acting the way I think other people expect me to be. And then, following a conscious reminder, I override this automatic tendency. Maybe next week I’ll spend a day (or a part of it, depending on how brave I’m feeling) challenging some of the default behaviors I subconsciously resort to.

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Fundamental Attribution Error and David Foster Wallace

During the section on the power of the situation and the fundamental attribution error, my mind kept going back to an essay by David Foster Wallace that I had read a couple years ago. I believe it very eloquently captures the notion of the Fundamental Attribution Error, Wallace remarks, “here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe.” And goes on to talk about how we go through our days frustrated by most everything and the strangers we meet. How when we get cut off by a driver, we assume that is a bad person. Instead, Wallace encourages the audience to approach life with a more forgiving, less centered mindset – perhaps “that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital.”

I think about this speech a lot, and it’s interesting to see that there is a social psychological base to the way humans react to the actions of others. Furthermore, it seems like we almost always choose the more negative attribute to attach to them. If there is an angry looking lady at the supermarket, we don’t think oh maybe she has a headache or she’s had a bad day, we assume she is a person with a poor disposition. Perhaps it is because our own self is the center of our universe: if I’ve had a long, hard day and I’m not frowning, I jump to the conclusion that anyone who is frowning must just be an angry person.

Why is it that the fundamental attribution error even exists? And to what extent does it impact our life and happiness? I particularly feel the just-world phenomenon is a good explanation. The notion that we are the righteous ones, and that the bad things that happen to me are because the world is unfair and not by any means caused by my own actions. But, this might be different in people with lower self-esteem. There have been studies demonstrating correlations between high self-esteem and attributing failure on exams to the exam not being well made; versus individuals with lower self-esteem attribute the failing grade to their own personality. I wonder if this may be extrapolated to the fundamental attribution error: are those with lower self-esteem more sympathetic to others’ struggles, since they don’t agree with the just-world phenomenon? I’ve been trying to train myself to wane off immediately defaulting to the attribution effect. But, unless I make the conscious decision to explain to myself, following a bias, I don’t even realize I’ve done it. However, thus far I didn’t realize it was a social psych term! I’ve been basing my actions/attempts to change on the speech by Wallace. Hopefully, having a psych approach towards it will help in recognizing it more often in me and in those around me. I do agree with Wallace in his encouragement to fight against the attribution effect. Being more empathetic and minimizing the self-pity from the just-world hypothesis would do one good.

link to the speech: https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/DFWKenyonAddress2005.pdfhttps://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/DFWKenyonAddress2005.pdf


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