The Effect Of Culture On Skepticism

The effect of culture on personality.
Who are we?  How much of our personality is really “us” and how much is learned?  In a book about cultures, Gary Ferraro writes about a young girl who grew up in the wild, apart from human influence.  When she was discovered, she had no ability to communicate or respond to communication from others.  Her temperament was both wild and fearful.  Within 18 months of human interaction, she was speaking as well as a two year old and her demeanor had become softer and more trusting.  While our basic temperament may be genetic, isn’t it true that we adapt our personalities to survive in our environment?
This also applies to the less extreme situations in which most of us are raised.  As children, we learn how to survive in our cultures through trial & error, imitation, and observing the trial & error of others.  We learn how to adapt our personalities in order to survive and be successful.

Each culture has its own rules regarding what is right and wrong.  Most of us judge ourselves against the rules dictated by the society we live in.  We often assume those rules are absolute definitions of right or wrong and are shocked and disgusted by the practices of other cultures.  We evaluate the behavior of other cultures by assessing how well it would fit into our own culture.  And the reverse is also true – other cultures view our behavior as disgusting, because it doesn’t conform to the rules of their culture.  Until you open your mind to the fact that social norms are arbitrarily decided by individual cultures, you can’t truly understand human nature. 
Even a concept as taboo as polygamy is actually legally and morally acceptable in other cultures.  The fact that polygamy doesn’t fit into our own social ideals does not make the other cultures wrong.  Instead of assuming that other cultures are barbaric or immoral, it’s important to first try to understand why the behavior in question makes sense to them. 

Dimensions of Culture.
Geert Hofstede identified several components of culture back in the 1960’s: individualism/collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity/femininity.  These concepts may seem familiar and elementary, but stay with me because they’re necessary background information for my ultimate query.  A brief description of the relevant concepts follows:
In individualistic cultures, people value their own accomplishments, goals, and desires as individuals.  In collectivistic cultures, people value their affiliation with and contribution to a group.  In a collectivistic culture, praise or promotion for a job well-done is embarrassing to the individual.  On the flip side, in collectivistic cultures it is necessary to maintain affiliation with a group in order to avoid social and vocational ostracism.  It is necessary for survival.  Therefore, disagreeing with the cultural norms and ideals of society can be devastating.  In individualistic cultures “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” – the person who stands out gets attention.  In collectivistic cultures “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” – the person who stands out gets put in their place.
Power distance refers to the unequal distribution of power and wealth in some cultures, and also the extent to which that unequal distribution is accepted by society.  In high power distance countries, the power and wealth belongs to an elite few, who are regarded as ultimate authorities.  There is very little dialogue between subordinates and superiors, as opposed to the egalitarian approach of low power distance countries.  The questioning of authority is frowned upon.  High power distance cultures are often also collectivistic, meaning that group affiliation, and thus survival, requires acceptance of the social norms and ideals of the person in authority.
Uncertainty avoidance refers to a culture’s ability to deal with uncertainty.  Cultures with high uncertainty avoidance prefer to live under strict rules and regulations that make them feel safe and secure.  They reject unorthodox ideas that could shake up the trusted ideals by which they live.  They are resistant to change.  Cultures with high uncertainty avoidance are often also high power distance – they prefer to operate under an authoritarian whose rules, regulations, and ideals they employ without question.  When the culture is also collectivistic, it is necessary to live by these rules, and suppress unorthodox ideas in order to survive, socially speaking.
Masculinity/Femininity refers to a culture’s emphasis on material gain versus quality of life and is not relevant to this discussion.
Before I proceed, I’d like to briefly mention that each culture lies at some point on a continuum between any two of the labels above.  No culture is entirely individualistic or collectivistic – by saying a culture is individualistic, I am just saying that they are more individualistic than collectivistic.  In fact I think it’s important to point out that in collectivistic countries, individuals look out for their own self-interest by maintaining affiliation with the group.  Because the rules are different in that culture – not the person, the rules.

The Point.
Whether we realize it or not, we all adapt our personalities to a degree in order to be successful in our environments.  What we think of as “us” may not be “us” at all, but some combination of our natural temperament and learned adaptation to our environment.  Some environments encourage unorthodox beliefs and embrace change, while others have a strict regard for authority, discourage the questioning of authority, and are resistant to change.  Some countries reward the efforts and achievements of the individual while in other countries group affiliation is a prerequisite to success.  And in some countries, straying from the norm means lack of group affiliation, which means an all around unhappy existence. 
To what extent do the dimensions of culture affect the development of skepticism in the individual, or the expression of skepticism by the individual?  We like to think of ourselves as “free-thinkers”, and in many ways we are (being agnostic or atheist in a Christian nation, for instance).  But US culture is democratic.  Citizens of all levels get a say, and expect to be able to question rules and regulations.  The US is an open forum for opinions of all sorts.  There is no strict reverence for authority – look at how many citizens currently regard our own president!  How much harder would it be to be a “free-thinker” in a country in which you must be affiliated with a group in order to be successful?  If you were brought up in a culture that has absolute respect for authority?  If having an unorthodox opinion meant you would be an outcast, both socially and vocationally? 
Additionally, what if the culture in which we’re raised not only affects the way we act, but also the way we think?  Is it possible that skepticism never even develops within persons raised in a collectivistic, high power distance country that avoids uncertainty?  Or is skepticism intrinsic, so that the skeptic would be forced to suppress their thoughts in order to survive?

What role does culture play in skepticism?

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  1. Culture plays a huge role in skepticism. But I have to disagree with the section on Ethnocentrism. While it is partially true, there are some things that are just plain wrong, even if a certain culture accepts those things as moral. In other words, some cultures are actually better than others, and have better morals — and by that I mean morals that alleviate and reduce human suffering and lead to increased happiness and well being in the cultural pariticipants, morals that treat all people equally, for example, and that do not degrade and oppress women, as one particular example of something that is really fucked up in a lot of cultures and that should not be respected because it is acceptable within that culture.

    As you can tell, I think cultural relativism is basically crap, when taken to extremes. It is OK as far as it goes, if used to accept that not everyone who is different than we are is a barbarian or savage and to understand that all humans are essentially the same (that is, Africans and Native Americans are certainly not subhuman or intellectually stunted, as many in earlier centuries believed), but when taken to the extreme to mean that all cultures are equally healthy for humans and should be accepted for what they are without critique, then you've gone off the deep end.

    I hope that's not where you're headed with this.

    In regards to society changing the psychological makeup of humans, that is certainly true and I commented about that recetnly on PZ's blog:

    See comment #26.

  2. Good point, writerdd. My point with ethnocentrism was that it's human nature to assess the behaviors of other cultures only within the framework of our own, and that it's important to first try to understand the way different societies think and not blithely pass judgment.

    I certainly didn't mean that all behavior is ok all the time.

    Thanks for bringing that up. :)

  3. Hmm. I was going to say something about the segment on ethnocentrism, but writerdd has beaten me to it, and Stacey has already cleared things up somewhat! I agree with writerdd's points about multiculturalism and the dangers that it can present, which are all too real. It's very difficult for a society to function as a whole when the rule of law is not applied equally across cultures, and in increasingly mixed societies, one simply cannot afford to give people of one culture a free pass on issues simply because of their culture.

    There are already separate civil courts for Muslims in certain parts of England, for instance, and while they technically deal with only civil matters, I'm not entirely sure how fair it is for insular segments of a population to employ equally insular arbitrators to deal with legal matters of any sort. How can we be sure that victims are being protected in ways they deserve if we are allowing different cultural groups to redefine victimhood? It is difficult enough to do so when applying one set of laws to everyone. Fracturing that would make it even harder. It is a delicate situation, indeed.

    Regardless, the questions you raise at the end of your post are quite interesting, Stacey. The research I've seen about intrinsic 'qualities' and the influence of culture on thoughts and behavior has been mixed. Some of what I've read about twin studies seems to suggest that there is quite a lot that is intrinsic/genetic in determining personalities, but I don't THINK any of the twin studies I've read involved quite so large a difference in cultures as, say, having one twin raised in Manhattan and another in Iran.

    I tend to think that cultures of the sort you describe DO have an impact on the development of skeptical attitudes, but only to an extent. It seems likely to me that there will be some who will simply never develop skeptical attitudes in collectivist, high power distance, low uncertainty cultures (a description which seems to fit China as it was described on that recent Skeptic's Guide episode). How those numbers compare to, say, the number of Americans who do not develop skeptical/critical skills would be interesting to find out.

    At the same time, I'd expect that there would be a significant number of people in less skeptical cultures who DO have dissenting opinions, yet who are socially compelled to suppress their own opinions in the name of safety and/or cultural acceptance. Finding the balance between the two perspectives, and comparing the trends between such a society and the US or other more democratic cultures would be an interesting focus for a study.

    Finally, a post I wrote over at my blog some months back talks a bit about the arbitrary nature of the cultures into which we are born, and how that colors our views of other cultures and, specifically, religions.

    Ok, I've talked too much. I'll shut up now, aside from mentioning that the audiobook of this comment will soon be available on iTunes…

  4. Well, I think skepticism is something that certain cultures tolerate more than others. No culture really encourages skepticism, simply because internalizing community truths is such an integral part of any individual's acculturation.

    Obviously, a culture marked by low uncertainty tolerance will not produce many good, data-driven thinkers. I consider a good thinker to be one who understands that a conclusion is a tentative thing – one that must constantly be reshaped and reevaluated as new information comes in.

    Collectivist cultures, and ones with high power distance, and low uncertainty tolerance, are cultures in which relationships come before "correctness." It's less important, in such a culture, to be "right" than it is to be "on the right side." Naturally, a person succeeding in such a culture has to understand people and what makes them tick, more than they need to understand anything else. "Networking" trumps "merit" almost every time.

    In a nominally "individualistic" culture such as ours, networking still is more important than merit, but the culture at least pays lip service to the notion of merit driven success. And most people can find examples of meritocratic institutions in their own lives.

    The key point here is that when merit is rewarded, skepticism grows. The reason for this is that objective, open-to-anything-the-data-says, analysis is the single most effective way to achieve merit. There's nothing like objective self-criticism when it comes to getting better. Combine that with an out-of-the-box approach to developing solutions, and you got yourself someone with all the tools needed to achieve real, tangible, test-able "merit."

    As for "cultural relativism?" Well, it doesn't seem very productive to say that some cultures are better than others. It may be "true," provided we agree on the criteria for "better" and "worse," but it probably isn't productive.

    What does seem logical to me, though, is to talk about which "populations" a culture serves well, and which it serves poorly. In doing so, we can also get some sense of the strengths and weaknesses of a culture, without having to make a blanket statement. It's also a neat backhanded way of establishing a fair set of standards that can be applied to any culture.

    Now, obviously, "population" is a very loose term. A culture might, generally, serve adult males well, for example. But, if one divides that population, one might see that men over 60, or homosexual men, are diminished/punished/forced by the culture. (Just a hypothetical example, here.)

    It's tempting to do away with the term "population" and just focus on how individuals are served or diminished by culture. But the thing is, cultures, given that they are defined by shared perceptions – shared "truths" – necessarily deal with larger units than individuals. In other words, "grandpa deserves our respect," is not a cultural statement. It may very well, however, be a byproduct of the cultural norm: "We must respect our elders."

    So, the "best" culture, by my definition, is the one which allows every population to do its thing, provided that thing isn't preventing other populations from doing the same. The "best" culture affords each individual a lot of leeway to live as he pleases, but it does so by respecting, and enforcing, the equality of individuals before the law, regardless of group affiliation. The best culture rewards merit and resists crony-ism.

    Such a culture progresses. It becomes more intelligent. New ideas flourish. Rank and privilege become diffuse. Even powerful individuals have only very limited capacity to force others to fit into their worldview.

    thanks for the great topic,

    eric strauss

  5. Thanks for the clarification, Stacey. This is a very interesting topic on many levels. You should consider fleshing out your thoughts and writing an article about it for one of the skeptic magazines, or perhaps even think about a book on the subject…..

  6. Mr Strauss, good point about not using "better" or "worse" to describe cultures because one may be "better" at some things and, as you say, in serving the needs of certain groups or individuals within the culture, while another may excell in meeting the needs of other groups or individuals. But I do think that those cultures promoting equality and nondiscrimination are, in a very real sense, "better" than those who do not promote said virtues. Anyway, very interesting ideas.

  7. Yeah, I agree, writerdd.

    I think pluralistic, nonjudgmental cultures are “best.” It is tough to both keep one’s intellectual distance and also acknowledge what seems to be intuitively true: Oppression is bad. Rigid hierarchy is bad. Forcing people to fit into culturally defined roles is bad.

    And not doing those things is better.

    So you and I see this much the same – we want to use language carefully, but we don’t want to get so relativistic that we ignore common sense truth.

    word up to that,


  8. Expatria wrote:

    Finding the balance between the two perspectives, and comparing the trends between such a society and the US or other more democratic cultures would be an interesting focus for a study.

    Good save there Ex ;)

    I definitely don’t consider the US to be the pinnacle of democracy. Mostly because it’s not a

  9. … because it’s not a democracy in the strictest sense of the word for starters. And because there are nations that are a lot more democratic(although that is in itself no more a good or a bad thing as high or low power distance is, for example).

    Mostly though, seeing the speed at which the US has started to turn into a fundamentalist religious nation over the past few decades, perhaps a direct result of having very little legislation in place that could prevent a subgroup from essentially taking over the country (an unintended side-effect of a somewhat skewed concept of “freedom” and a distrust of “the gubmint”), is worrysome.

    From a non-American perspective, it looks as though the US has become a victim of its own progressiveness. The many backdoors left in place to prevent the government from becoming too powerfull have now made it powerless to act against the very people that are slowly taking over. In essence, what’s the point of describing all the freedoms you want to protect, if the structure put in place to protect them is in the hands of the people who are now trying to ignore and destroy them, or at least in the hands of people who seem unwilling to appear unpatriotic by speaking up against the many violations of the constitution or some of its ammendments (like the supreme court deciding not to make a descision on issues like “in god we trust” printed on the currency,or “one nation under god” recited in the pledge).

    But anyway, I’m digressing a bit. My point is, that it may be an interesting comparison to make between the US and various other, apparently less “free”, cultures. But the US is itself just a dot on the spectrum, and by no means a dot on the far end at that.
    So while it may appear that in the US you’re allowed to speak up and be considered “the squeaky wheel” on pretty much anything, lately it appears to me that, in a sense you are just as socially compelled to fall in line as in other cultures, just in different ways.

  10. I am not convinced that Dr. Hofstede's catagories are natural, as opposed to groupings used to frame his line of inquiry in a way that gets him where he wants to go.

    In particular, his suggestion that wealth is a conserved object to distribute, rather than the product of human endeavor, seems more at home in the 19th century than the 21st.

    That being said, I've spent years working in collaborative labs with people from all sorts of cultures. Good scientific reasoning is universal (if rare). However, culture effects where a scientist starts, and which types of evidence to trust in the case of percieved contradictions.

    Lousy scientists are generally unscientific in their own cuturally unique ways.

  11. insofar as the country leaning farther to the right, i'm not so sure. it would seem that politicians are trying to push that way, but the culture as a whole seems to be moving away from religious conviction overall. it's pretty easy to see this in a case like divorce, a religious taboo, was nearly fatal socially at one time. now it's commonplace and accepted. homosexuality is similarly gaining social acceptance.

    what makes stacey's topic even more interesting, is that societies can be very fluid and dynamic, with large shifts in values occuring over time, without sudden social or political upheaval (such as coup de tat) being involved. this being the case, the acceptability of skepticism could vary depending on when/where a society might be in its own natural dynamic, almost regardless of what sort of culture it is.

    in high power, low uncertainty cultures, there are those that DO risk death to voice their opinions and criticisms. even within our own culture, independent thought is "promoted", socially, so long as it still conforms to societal norms…

    in either case, people will risk rejection and/or death to voice their convictions. so to at least some degree, it still boils down to the individual.

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