The seductive appeal of cultural stereotypes

20th February, 2014

Is it obvious that Jewish or Chinese Americans have superior willpower? asks Tim Harford

‘It may be taboo to say it, but some cultural groups starkly outperform others.’ Jacket blurb of ‘The Triple Package’ by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

Which cultural groups are they talking about? I vote for the baby boomers. They run the world and retire early on fat pensions; the rest of us are still listening to their idea of good music. They are outperforming the stuffing out of the rest of us.

I don’t think the boomers are a cultural group as far as this new book is concerned.

Why not?

I’m not sure. The authors take it as obvious that the logical way to divide up the US is on ethnic and religious lines: Nigerians, Iranians, Jews, Mormons and others. Hipsters don’t seem to count. Neither do punks, lesbians, hackers or hippies.

So by ‘cultural groups’ they mean ‘racial groups’?

Draw your own conclusions. We find it very tempting to carve the human race at those particular joints. Such generalisations have a seductive power: they have tempted otherwise humane and sophisticated individuals into the grossest racism.

You don’t think Chua and Rubenfeld are guilty of the grossest racism, do you?

No, I do not. And it must be legitimate to ask questions about ethnic and cultural differences – with care. The Triple Package is sold alongside titles claiming the secret to success is focus, or salesmanship, or psychoanalysis, or finding your own element, or being a psychopath. Or even that the secret is luck and we’re all being fooled by random patterns we interpret as causal. The book should be held to a higher standard of evidence, though: it says the secret to success is being raised by Jewish, Chinese, Indian or Nigerian parents. Chua and Rubenfeld don’t meet that higher standard. They offer heaps of anecdote with carefully selected academic evidence.

Everyone argues by anecdote. Is it really a particular problem here?

Yes. In a rare instance where they cite research from experimental psychology, they describe studies about the power of “stereotype threat”. For example, you can put women off their chess game by reminding them that the top players are all men. White kids struggle with a mathematics test if told it is research into the mathematical prowess of Asians. These stereotypes can cause real psychological, social and political damage. They should not be casually slung about to sell books. Insisting on care isn’t mere political correctness.

Are the authors careful?

They’re tactful but that’s not the same thing. One part of their “triple package” of cultural traits, for instance, is that insecurity breeds success. We are told this flouts the entire orthodoxy of contemporary psychology; then, in contrast, that it is supported by “a well substantiated and relatively uncontroversial body of empirical evidence”. If they cited any of that evidence I missed it in a flood of references to biographies, cultural histories, pop science and newspaper articles.

And the other claims?

They do cite scholarly research linking willpower to success in life but that doesn’t seal the deal. Is it so obvious Jewish or Chinese Americans have superior willpower? It’s far from clear that pushy parenting builds willpower, and I can cherry-pick my own research suggesting the opposite.

The third part of the triple package is?

A sense of cultural superiority. But is that particularly Indian or Iranian? Russians are proud to be Russian; Ethiopians to be Ethiopian. It didn’t seem to occur to the authors to look for disconfirmation by examining less successful religious or immigrant groups.

The whole story still sounds plausible to me.

We always find stereotyping plausible. That is why it is treacherous. But there are three big holes. The first is selection bias. If Indian doctors and engineers are given US visas, and they and their children are successful, is that because of Indian culture, or because the children of doctors and engineers also do well? The second is social networks. Chua and Rubenfeld may not emphasise psychological research but their worldview is ultimately about psychology rather than the contacts an immigrant network might bring. Most fundamentally, they fail to justify their basic premise: that the way to understand success is as a phenomenon that applies to religious or ethnic groups. They say that if we couldn’t generalise about Jews or Chinese Americans, “we wouldn’t be able to understand the world we live in”. Treating people as individuals is, apparently, just too much like hard work.

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