Friday, 8 April 2016

Surprised? No, I saw it coming

Not long after I moved to Singapore, the city–state in South East Asia, an acquaintance invited me to a movie. The film was an unremarkable post apocalyptic Hollywood production. What was remarkable to me was the audience reaction to the ebb and flow of the dramatic tension in the film. I, reared in western Europe and sensitised to the projected affect of its cultural artifacts, had what I thought to be natural and universal reactions to these ebbs and flows. As the film director built the tension and upped the ante, creating danger and life-threatening risk for the protagonists, I in turn tensed my body, fixed my eyes unblinkingly to the screen and remained solemn and still until our glorious lead overcame the danger and allowed me to relax again.

To my surprise, the audience around me displayed a completely contrary reaction; as the ante was being upped on screen, they giggled and conversed and seemed unwillingly to buy into the tension building. In fact, it seemed to my eyes as if there was an inverse relationship between the dramatic intent of the director in building to a surprise denouement and the dramatic effect on the audience that I would typically anticipate. Afterwards I overheard a number of the audience say what an excellent movie they thought it was.

I remained puzzled and curious by this phenomenon as I saw other movies in Singapore and elsewhere in the region, and fuzzily attributed it to some cross-cultural difference or other.

Robert Niesbett and his colleagues have an altogether less fuzzy explanation. They attribute it to an effect arising from a fundamentally different ontology and epistemology between those bathed in western culture and those of East Asia. Drawing upon a substantial body of empirical studies, they theorise on a system of thought they describe as holistic that can be attributed to ancient Chinese metaphysics and contrast this with an analytic tradition in the west attributable to ancient Greek metaphysics. Each of these, they claim, imbues the modern equivalent societies with significantly different socio-cognitive capacities. In the Chinese tradition, harmony social obligation and the greater good are emphasised. This gives rise to greater focus on relational and contextual properties within cognition. Individual objects and indeed individual agency are less salient while the social obligations and hierarchical structure are to the fore. Debate and explicit criticism are shunned, valour is found in the middle way between extremes. An interesting and specific prediction arises: individuals raised in modern east Asian societies (most, although not all, (a point not made in the paper) heavily influenced by Chinese culture) should display a high degree of hindsight bias. Hindsight bias is a kind of knew-it-all-along post hoc rationalisation that allows a disposition of no surprise: I saw it coming. One could speculate that such a bias is a handy tool in a culture where social harmony is prized and the loss of face at not seeing it coming is a full on social humiliation. A study by Choi and Nesbitt compared hindsight bias among a group of Koreans and European Americans, and found a significant difference, with the Korean sample displaying far higher degree of hindsight bias. Thus their hypothesis was not dis-confirmed.

The paper also examines are number of hypotheses with regard to particular biases the should arise in western societies attributable to their particular epistemology and social organisation that are worth noting, including a heightened illusion of control, arising from an exaggerated sense of personal agency.

While I remain somewhat skeptical of large tracts of the philosophical underpinnings of their arguments, they do good service in drawing attention to the shaky foundations of the idea that all cognitive processes are universal and that extrapolation and generalisability is essentially a straightforward exercise once the underlying data is sound; an axiom of most cognitive psychology. They also do good service in affording me a potentially satisfying explanation for my movie theatre experience. But I know that all along.

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