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2019-01-10 13:37:06 Commentary

Dashing through the Beijing Railway Station to catch her train, Wang Jing suddenly realizes that her wallet, ID, and ticket have all been stolen. Her best friend is getting married in Shanghai in a few hours and she’s needed as an official witness, but the authorities and railway staff tell her there’s nothing they can do. She slumps down onto a bench, nearly resigned to defeat, before seeing that the person sitting next to her has — without noticing — dropped his Shanghai-bound ticket onto the floor. Wang knows that if she takes the ticket, she might leave the stranger stranded. But if she doesn’t, her best friend’s wedding will be ruined. What should she do?

Though she may not realize it, Wang has just stumbled into a philosophical dilemma. The moral choice she must make will necessarily lead to harm – either to her friend or to the unwitting stranger sitting beside her. Philosophers, long fascinated by such dilemmas, have in recent years focused on one particular kind of railway thought experiment: the so-called trolley problem.

In its classic formulation, a subject is told of a runaway trolley that, if not stopped, will strike and kill five people. The only means of averting this disaster is by pulling a lever that will divert the trolley onto another set of tracks, but doing so will cause it to strike a sixth individual instead. According to a utilitarian view of the world, one death is preferable to five, so the just decision is to pull the lever and sacrifice the lone bystander for the greater good. But what if that sacrifice is a close friend or family member? Does that relationship count for anything?

A recently published paper in the peer-reviewed journal “Frontiers in Psychology” suggests that, at least for more traditionally minded young Chinese, it does.

The paper’s lead authors, Kaiping Peng and Li Liu, began by presenting a group of Beijing undergraduates with a set of statements representing traditional or modern viewpoints, such as, “The best way to avoid mistakes is to obey what elders say,” and, “If married life is too painful, divorce may be a way to solve the problem.” After tallying up their responses, Peng and Liu asked each participant to read a number of moral scenarios and pick a solution to each that prioritized either personal relationships or justice.

They found that those individuals whose views were more aligned with traditional Chinese culture were more likely to be influenced by what Peng and Liu termed “relationship concerns.” If Wang Jing, our fictional subject at the train station, took the stranger’s ticket to attend her friend’s wedding, she may have been motivated by this type of concern. But the paper also found no correlation between more modern cultural values in China and “justice concerns” — which in psychology refer to individual rights and autonomy.

In recent years, cross-cultural approaches to the study of morality have shed new light on how culture impacts psychology. One of the most well-known of these studies is Richard E. Nisbett’s “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why.” Nisbett argues that, whereas what he terms “Confucian-based,” East Asian societies take a more holistic approach to problem solving — one based on identifying the relationships between things — Western societies are more analytic and detail-oriented. In his view, these variations arose due to differences in social structures, as well as historical and environmental factors.

Other moral psychologists have used intercultural studies to identify differences in the ways that members of so-called individual and communitarian societies evaluate moral dilemmas. One such study found that Chinese respondents were less likely to support utilitarian solutions — flipping a switch to kill one but save five — than those from Britain. When asked to explain their reasoning, those who refused to switch the lever gave responses such as, “I have not the right to make this kind of decision,” “Every life is equal to others,” and, “I don’t want to change or control anyone’s destiny.”

Peng and Liu’s study suggests the need to separate modernization from the adoption of Western values.

As part of the new study, in order to better understand why young Chinese who endorsed traditional viewpoints attached more importance to relationship concerns, Peng and Liu decided to conduct a follow-up experiment. This time, their goal was to determine if exposure to symbols representing modern or traditional culture could influence students’ moral values, and whether students’ responses would change when exposed to different sets of cultural symbols.

This method of presenting objects, words, or symbols to subtly shift subjects’ views is known as cultural priming. When asked to produce word lists or make word associations after being primed, subjects may unknowingly use terms that are the same as or similar to the ones that were presented by psychologists. Priming is an important part of the theory that culture shapes our cognition.

In this instance, Peng and Liu showed each participant a set of images that corresponded to traditional Chinese culture, modern China, or neither. After being primed, subjects were asked to read a series of trolley problems. Peng and Liu’s hypothesis was that subjects primed with images of traditional culture would be more likely to prioritize relationships in resolving the dilemmas, while those primed with symbols pertaining to modern culture would be more likely to focus on justice concerns.

The results, however, showed that priming had no effect on participants’ responses. Justice concerns are frequently linked with individualism — which psychologists typically associate with Western culture and modernity — but Peng and Liu’s study suggests the need to separate modernization from the adoption of Western values. In other words, modernization is a more complex process than just Westernization or the increase of individual rights, and the process of political and economic modernization impacts cultural cognition differently in different cultures.

But Peng and Liu’s results may be difficult to replicate.

“[Priming is] a clever way to establish causality,” wrote the psychologist Li-jun Ji in an email. Nevertheless, she warned that, “It’s quite challenging to establish a causal relationship between modernization and psychological characteristics.”

Nesbitt, the author of “The Geography of Thought,” expressed interest in the study’s results during a phone interview, but he pointed out that its significance remained difficult to interpret.

Peng and Liu’s work also suffered from small sample sizes and an overrepresentation of women. “This is another problem of relying too much on the subject pool of psychology students in general (there are more women than men studying psychology these days),” wrote Ji. “Having too many women does limit the generalizability of the findings.”

Despite such drawbacks, the study offers an interesting peek at the potential of cross-cultural perspectives in the field. Psychology — and cultural psychology in particular — has been criticized for focusing too much on so-called WEIRD societies: those that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. More diverse, cross-cultural approaches to the study of the human mind may open our eyes to the multiplicity of ways that our backgrounds shape our brains.

Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.

(Header image: A man takes a photo of the Shenzhen skyline, Guangdong province, Nov. 7, 2018. Wang Zhao/AFP/VCG)