The Situationist

Deep Capture – Part VIII

Posted by J on January 29, 2008

// is the eighth part of a series on what Situationist Contributor David Yosifon and I call “deep capture.” The most basic prediction of the “deep capture” hypothesis is that there will be a competition over the situation (including the way we think) to influence the behavior of individuals and institutions and that those individuals, groups, entities, or institutions that are most powerful will win that competition. I review the previous posts in this series at the bottom of this post, which contrasts different cultures for evidence of commercial interests in promoting dispositionism.

(Situationist artist Marc Scheff is providing the primary illustrations in this series.)

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“My research has led me to the conviction that two utterly different approaches to the world have maintained themselves for thousands of years. These approaches include profoundly different social relations, views about the nature of the world, and characteristic thought processes. Each of these orientations–the Western and the Eastern–is a self-reinforcing, homeostatic system. The social practices promote the worldviews; the worldviews dictate the appropriate thought processes; and the thought processes both justify the worldviews and support the social practices.”

~Richard E. Nisbett

The previous [posts in this series] provided a sample of evidence suggesting that various regulatory institutions are, indeed, highly dispositionist. This evidence should not be surprising, given that social psychologists have demonstrated that we humans tend to see the world dispositionally. So, although the evidence might be consistent with our deep capture hypothesis and might well reveal a major cause for concern, it may only evince a shared cognitive illusion–a worldview that emerges solely from forces outside of anyone’s control.

An important implication of deep capture is that our dispositionism is, at least in this market-oriented culture, more profound than it would otherwise be. Corporations exercise their enormous power over situation to encourage and reinforce dispositionism because it is valuable to them. This presumes that the basic contours of our outlook are malleable, that even dispositionism is not stable but is subject to situational influence.

A question thus emerges as to whether dispositionism reflects anything more than our hardwiring as humans–a shared interior situation. The answer seems to be that it does. As we have already indicated, dispositionism varies somewhat across contexts. Thus, exterior situation matters too. Social psychologists have begun looking more specifically at the significance of culture. In a revealing study by Takahiko Masuda and Richard Nisbett, for example, students at Kyoto University and the University of Michigan were shown animated underwater scenes containing images of various undersea objects, such as rocks, small fish, plants, and a “focal fish.” The focal fish was larger, brighter and faster moving than the others–the sort of characteristics that would, according to conventional understandings, make them more salient to the observer. After viewing the scenes, students were asked to describe what they saw. Predictably, American students spoke immediately of the focal fish (e.g., “a trout, moving off to the left”) and only later added references to its surroundings. The Japanese students, on the other hand, tended to begin by describing the context (e.g., “It looked like a pond”). During the course of their descriptions, students from both universities made roughly equal references to the focal fish, but the Japanese participants made over sixty percent more references to contextual elements and twice as many references to relationships with inanimate aspects of the environment (e.g., “the big fish swam past a rock”).Nisbett fish image

According to Nisbett, such evidence confirms the hypothesis that members of some cultures are more inclined to take in the world as if through a wide-angle lens, whereas members of other cultures tend to see the world as if through a zoom. Nisbett argues that this distinction across cultures has ancient roots and may even help explain why the Chinese made connections that Aristotle and Galileo, with their telescopic vision, missed:

The Greeks’ focus on the salient object and its attributes led to their failure to understand the fundamental nature of causality. Aristotle explained that a stone falling through the air is due to the stone having the property of ‘gravity.’ But of course a piece of wood tossed into water floats instead of sinking. This phenomenon Aristotle explained as being due to the wood having the property of ‘levity’! In both cases the focus is exclusively on the object, with no attention paid to the possibility that some force outside the object might be relevant. But the Chinese saw the world as consisting of continuously interacting substances, so their attempts to understand it caused them to be oriented toward the complexities of the entire ‘field,’ that is, the context or environment as a whole. The notion that events always occur in a field of forces would have been completely intuitive to the Chinese. The Chinese therefore had a kind of recognition of the principle of ‘action at a distance’ two thousand years before Galileo articulated it. They had knowledge of magnetism and acoustic resonance, for example, and believed it was the movement of the moon that caused the tides, a fact that eluded even Galileo. Thus, the tendency goes beyond perception of non-human objects and is revealed as well in how “Easterners” and “Westerners” conceptualize and construe social contexts.

The evidence about cultural variations in dispositionism provides some additional support for our hypothesis that humans are both “individually” and “culturally” dispositionist, but it may go further. It suggests that dispositionism is greatest where the situational influence of large corporate interests has likely been greatest.

Recall the fundamental attribution error that is at the heart of dispositionism fallacy–the tendency to miss the influence of situation and to overstate the power of disposition in understanding one’s own and other people’s behavior. Earlier, we described the centrality of that bias to human perception and experience. Cross-cultural comparisons, however, indicate that the fundamental attribution error may be more fundamental in Western societies than it is in other societies. People in Asia, for example, appear to be less prone to see disposition than are Westerners. The “focal fish” experiment provides some support for that conclusion. This disparity has been demonstrated in numerous experiments, including variations of the famous pro-Castro, anti-Castro speech experiment . . . .

In the basic version of that study, recall, subjects who knew that a student had been instructed to write and deliver a pro-Castro speech nevertheless thought that the views the student expressed in her speech were representative of her true dispositional beliefs. The same dispositionist mistake appeared when the study was conducted with a group of East Asian subjects–that is, subjects at first overstated the role of disposition in the students’ speeches. A number of similar studies have documented this basic commonality between Westerners and Easterners in the tendency to overstate disposition. Social psychologists therefore do believe that dispositionism, in its most basic form, is a widely shared human tendency.

Differences begin to emerge, however, when the basic design of the experiment is altered to highlight the role of the situational pressure even more prominently to subjects–by, for example, placing the subject in the target’s shoes and requiring her to write an essay that takes a particular stance. American subjects continue to exhibit the fundamental attribution error in significant proportions, while East Asians become far more likely to acknowledge the role of situation in the speeches they hear. This variation in dispositionism has recurred in several studies comparing Eastern to Western subjects. Such cross-cultural differences in the power of the fundamental attribution error suggest that, although dispositionism may be universal, the degree of dispositionism varies across cultures. Overall, the findings suggest that dispositionism is itself subject to situational influence, a reality that helps to make deep capture possible.

Another dimension to these cross-cultural experiments confirms that hypothesis. In a number of studies, people who are from the East but living in the West exhibit an outlook that falls between the strong dispositionism seen in Western subjects and the weaker dispositionism seen in Eastern subjects. A compelling explanation for these findings is that when subjected to different situational influences–that is, different cultures– people develop differences in how they perceive behavior. In other words, situation, not dispositional factors such as biology or race, makes the difference. And importantly for our deep capture thesis, the Western cultural situation appears to drive people into a deeper dispositionism and away from situationism. Undoubtedly, differences in basic outlook remain among the many subcultures within Western society. The general patterns, however, are reasonably clear that dispositionism is stronger in the West than in the East, and that the situational influences of Western culture powerfully alter outlooks toward dispositionism.

earth-brain.pngThe evidence suggesting a greater sensitivity in Eastern society than in Western society to situational influences over behavior at first appears to challenge explanations of the fundamental attribution error that are rooted in the mechanics of human perception. In our earlier discussion we stressed, as have social psychologists, that one reason for the fundamental attribution error is the relative facility of seeing individual behavior compared to the situational influences that may give rise to it. Our limited perceptual and cognitive resources focus on what is stark and miss what is subtle. Therefore, we see the person who would administer painful shocks to a test-subject as dispositionally bad or sadistic, rather than account for the myriad of situational influences that help account for that behavior. Notably for our thesis, social psychologists have not abandoned the basic perceptual explanation of the human tendency to overstate dispositionist explanations of behavior. Indeed, this basic perceptual account explains the baseline of similarity seen in the cross-cultural Castro speech experiments.

According to social psychologists, the ultimate divergence in the commitment to dispositionist explanations is a product of the difference in the two cultures’ lay theories of the relationship between individuals and society. In the West, the perceptual foundation of the fundamental attribution error is surrounded by lay theories of the self as an autonomous, free, dispositionally stable individual. In this fashion, the fundamental attribution error serves to confirm the dispositional worldview for Westerners. On the other hand, cultures in the East entertain lay theories that portray the individual as situated in an array of interdependent social relationships in which roles, rather than individual actors, are emphasized. Social psychologists, thus, attribute to culture the fact that Eastern subjects appear to correct more easily for the fundamental attribution errors received from basic perceptual cues than do Western subjects. That explanation finds support in a number of cross-cultural studies. For instance, individuals who have been “multiply enculturated”–that is, exposed extensively to two or more cultures–can be situationally primed to activate the causal schemas characteristic of either culture. In one study, students in Hong Kong were shown one of the following: Western images (such as a cowboy on a horse), Eastern images (such as a dragon), or neutral images (such as a landscape). Afterwards, when making causal attributions, subjects in the first group were most dispositionist, subjects in the second group were most situationist, and those in the control group fell in between. Studies by developmental psychologists have found that Eastern and Western children exhibit common fundamental attribution errors and, unlike their parents, Eastern children do not correct for those errors when situational constraints are highlighted. Having not yet learned the situational lay-theories that their culture provides, their perceptions appear to rest on the limitations that give rise to the fundamental attribution error in Easterners and Westerners alike.

It is important to note that Easterners’ tendency to correct for dispositional overstatements is itself an unseen, subtle process. The studies revealing the relative depth or shallowness of the fundamental attribution error show that the adjustments for situation are often made automatically; they are not the result of a conscious, explicit, intentional adherence to an ideology or worldview. The difference in outlook, driven by cultural differences, is attributable to unseen processes, not dispositional choice. Consequently, while exterior situation helps explain the depth of our dispositionism, that influence is registered automatically, beneath our conscious control in the situations of our interiors.

The fact that situational influence determines the depth of our dispositionism is extremely advantageous to corporations, which, as we have indicated, have an interest in encouraging such an outlook. The capture of this outlook can be accomplished by exercising power over situation, a pursuit that is itself enabled by the strength of the dispositionist theories that support corporate power.

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Part I of this series explained that our “deep capture” story is analogous to the (shallow) capture story told by economists (such as Nobel laureate George Stigler) and public choice theorists for decades regarding the competition over prototypical regulatory institutions. Part II looked to history (specifically, Galileo’s recantation) for another analogy to the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves. Part III picked up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has implications far broader and deeper than he or others realized. Part IV examined the relative power (measured as the ability to influence situation) of large commercial interests today, much like the power of the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day. Part V described other parallels between the Catholic Church and geocentrism, on one hand, and modern corporate interests and dispositionism, on the other. Part VI laid out the “deep capture hypothesis” a bit more and began loosely testing it by examining the role that it may have played in the “deregulatory” movement. Part VII provided some illustrative examples of how atypical “regulators,” from courts to hard-hitting news networks, reflect and contribute to deep capture.

One Response to “Deep Capture – Part VIII”

  1. Grue said

    This is an interesting article, and I’m glad I learned something about some east/west differences. It doesn’t really have anything to do with deep capture though.

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