david brooks, social psychologist…

…is the title of this awesome post by Mark Liberman on LanguageLog, debunking this assertion by Brooks:

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.

In response, Liberman writes:

Those who’ve followed our previous discussions of David Brooks’ forays into the human sciences (“David Brooks, Cognitive Neuroscientist“, 6/12/2006; “David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist“, 9/17/2006) will be able to guess what’s coming.

In this case, Mr. Brooks has taken his science from the work of Richard E. Nisbett, as described in his 2003 book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why, and in many papers, some of which are cited below. I was familiar with some of this work, which has linguistic aspects, and so I traced Brooks’ assertions to their sources. And even I, a hardened Brooks-checker, was surprised to find how careless his account of the research is.

Question to Language Log: Is it correct that if you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing, while if you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim?

Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all, it wasn’t a representative sample of Americans, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at the University of Michigan; and second, it wasn’t Chinese, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at Kyoto University in Japan; and third, it wasn’t a fish tank, it was 10 20-second animated vignettes of underwater scenes; and fourth, the Americans didn’t mention the “focal fish” more often than the Japanese, they mentioned them less often.

Read the whole thing! Assign it to your students in research methods!

One thought on “david brooks, social psychologist…”

  1. In one unit of my course, I assign students to find a statement in the popular press, convert it to a testable hypothesis about the relation between variables, and think up ways they might operationalize and measure those variables. Brooks regularly writes about topics of sociological interest, and he frequently doesn’t bother to provide any data at all (unlike this column, where he overstates and misstates the data). So his columns have been a valuable resource for me. It’s a bonus — not essential but fun and useful nevertheless — that he’s frequently wrong.


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