Nota bene: All characters in the following story—regardless of any real or imagined resemblance to an actual human person—are thoroughly fictionalized. The issues under discussion, however, are very real.
Once upon a time, there was a smart young boy named Kitayama who lived in the land of Interdependence. The people of Interdependence were very attentive to one another’s needs and desires; they sought to engage in behavior that would minimize conflict while maximizing empathy, filial piety, and mutual understanding. [i] Young Kitayama was a happy child, but as he matured, he conceived a desire to understand the motivations and behaviors of the people around him. He had heard of a magical school called Michigan, in the far-off land of Independence, where young scholars could go to receive training in the art of understanding people. After securing his parents’ blessing, he undertook the long journey that led to the storied halls of Michigan.
Kitayama’s training at Michigan was very difficult. He was lonely, at first, and his classmates seemed rude and self-centered. His teachers made him read arcane sacred texts, go without sleep to memorize the names of ancient scribes, jump through hoops for their express amusement, and prove his fortitude by doing endless statistical regressions. But he persevered, and things got better after he met a young woman named Markus who, after he helped her analyze a data set, became his true friend. “Remember that you’ve got a friend, Kitayama,” said Markus, “If you need me, all you have to do is call, and I’ll be there.”
At long last Kitayama’s training came to an end, and on a beautiful spring day in May he donned a yellow robe with a blue velvet hood, and was given the coveted sheepskin and a bag full of “theories” that his teachers promised would help him when set out to analyze his data. Pleased with his accomplishment, Kitayama returned home to study the people he had grown up with.
All was well until Kitayama started analyzing his data. The theories he pulled out of his bag were not helping him the way his teachers said they would. He thought maybe his teachers had cheated him by giving him a defective set. To make things worse, whenever he sent a report to his supervisor, Journal, the evil doorkeepers who guarded Journal’s office, Basic and Processes, sent it sent back with instructions to rewrite it or study the matter again. Kitayama was discouraged, because he really wanted to impress Journal, in part because Journal had a very pretty daughter named Recognition (Connie, for short [ii]) who Kitayama really wanted to get to know. Three times he sent in his report, and three times Basic and Processes sent it back. Filled with despair, Kitayama remembered Markus. He called her and explained his dilemma.
“Maybe,” said Markus, “it’s not the theories. Maybe, it’s the people. I mean, maybe the theories were made for the people of Independence, and they don’t work for the people of Interdependence.”
“I was just thinking the same thing!” cried Kitayama. “Will you help me do some comparative studies to test the theories and see if they work equally well for both kinds of people?”
“Of course!” said Markus. And so they did. After finding that the theories they had been given did not work equally well for the people in both lands, they decided to make a new theory. They worked very hard on the new theory — which posited that psychological processes are linked to aspects of the socio-cultural context in ways that can account for cross-cultural variation [iii] — sending it back and forth between them via FedEx three times before they finally liked what they had made.
Using their theory of the mutual constitution of cultures and selves, Kitayama and Markus sent so many water-tight and path-breaking articles to Journal that the evil doorkeepers, Basic and Processes, collapsed under the barrage and could no longer exclude them from Journal’s attention. Journal introduced Kitayama to Connie; the two set up house, and were very happy together for a long time. In fact, things were going so well that Kitayama was invited back to the land of Independence to teach at Michigan! What an opportunity — the student turned teacher! So Kitayama and Connie moved to Michigan, where he cheerfully settled down to the task of setting up hoops for his graduate students, Park and Na, to jump through.
All was going well, that is, until one day Kitayama came home in the middle of the afternoon and found Connie in the bedroom, looking flushed and breathing heavily as she shoved a book under the pillow. “What are you doing?” demanded Kitayama. “Since when do you hide your reading material from me?” Connie avoided his gaze as she handed him the book she’d been reading. Kitayama felt an arrow pierce his heart as he gazed at the title: The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. “How could you?” he cried, “Don’t you know that Pinker believes that human behavior is generated by the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that may be universal and innate? [iv] He claims that culture is epiphenomenal to more basic psychological processes! It’s everything I’ve worked so hard to overturn!”
“I’m sorry, dear,” replied Connie, looking genuinely apologetic. “It’s just so scientific,” she offered. “There’s something so wonderfully hard about cognitive neuroscience,” she added with an appreciative shiver.
Kitayama was upset with Connie for being so fickle, but he was more determined than ever to prove that culture is a significant shaper of human cognition, emotion, and motivation. He called his friend Markus to complain about the attention being lavished on cognitive neuroscience in the discipline of psychology. Markus was sympathetic, and suggested he think about moving in that direction. But before she hung up, Markus asked Kitayama if he would contribute an essay to the book on race and ethnicity she was putting together. “Thank you, but no,” Kitayama demurred, “I don’t work on race. My work is strictly about culture.”
Kitayama called Park and Na into his office and told them, “We’re going to start our own cultural neuroscience project! We’ll use measures such as fMRI and ERP to give us information we can’t get from behavioral measures alone about how culture might get into the brain. We’ll consider genetic and epigenetic processes that are likely to be closely tied to both brain and culture, and we’ll prove that culture and the brain make each other up. I’m excited; we’re moving into the future!” [v]
Kitayama went to work. He read up on cognitive neuroscience and developed relationships with people who could operate the fancy new machines. He wrote an essay envisioning the future of cultural neuroscience [vi], worked with a colleague to develop a neuro-culture interaction model [vii], and theorized the effect on brain processes of active and sustained engagement in cultural tasks [viii]. He recruited as test subjects some Asian Americans (who are generally socialized to be more interdependent) and some European Americans (who are more often socialized to be independent) in order to increase his likelihood of finding cultural differences. Lastly, he designed a study that would show — using both behavioral and neuroscience measures — that test subjects who had been socialized in an interdependent culture were less likely than those who had been socialized in an independent culture to attribute personality traits to someone on the basis of that person’s exhibited behavior. He reasoned that those who had internalized an interdependent way of being in the world would be more likely to assume that the exhibited behavior was externally motivated. Consequently, they would show less surprise, as measured by the ERP, when they later found out that the person’s exhibited behavior contradicted his or her personality.
“We’ve done it!” he said to Park and Na, when the ERP test results confirmed his hypothesis. “We’ve replicated the results of my previous research, and even advanced it by providing evidence from neuroscience that cultural values and practices help shape the brain.” He and Na wrote up the results, and sent the report on to Journal.
Well pleased with what he had accomplished, Kitayama went home to cuddle with Connie and to live happily ever after.
And so ends the Fairytale. But, alas, the story continues . . .
That night, Kitayama fell asleep and entered what seemed to be a very life-like dream. He found himself in a place he’d never been before, standing on the sidewalk outside a patio restaurant where a man and a woman were finishing lunch. As Kitayama was looking around, patting his pockets for his iPhone and trying to get his bearings, he overheard their conversation.
“So, did you meet your deadline on the Kitayama piece?” asked the woman as she signed the credit card slip and tucked her copy into her purse.
Kitayama stopped patting his pockets and looked up.
“Yes, of course,” answered her companion, as he fingered the strap of a well-worn satchel with a ScienceDaily sticker pasted on the front. “It wasn’t hard. All I had to do was slap a headline on the press release provided by the Association for Psychological Science (APS) via EurekAlert!. [ix] Here’s my headline: ‘Cultural Differences are Evident Deep in the Brains of Caucasian and Asian People’. [x] I was going for the hard science angle,” he smirked. “You know, I’m glad we can finally move past all that multicultural bullshit that says race isn’t real. Now we have hard scientific proof — it’s in the brain!”
Kitayama was confused. Could they be talking about his study? It’s true that he used both Asian American and European American test subjects. But nowhere in his study had he said a thing about any so-called “Caucasians”! [xi]
“I’m worried about how well those Asians do in math and science classes, though,” said the man. “My son says the Asian kids at his school always study together and get the best grades. Say, Fiona, you don’t think they’re really any smarter than we are, do you?”
“Oh, no,” laughed Fiona, as she widened her bright blue eyes in appreciation of what she assumed was a joke. “I took a bit more trouble with my piece. My editor likes me to change things around a bit. And I used a book metaphor for my title. I wrote: ‘Why people with a European background can’t help but judge a book by its cover.’” [xii] She laughed appreciatively at her cleverness, before adding, “Apparently we can’t help our biases. Race is in our DNA, after all.”
Kitayama was horrified. “No,” he cried out, “you’ve got it all wrong! It’s not about race! It’s about culture — don’t you see? It’s not even about Asians and Europeans! It’s about people who have been socialized to be independent versus those who have been socialized to be interdependent! Culture is in the brain, yes, but culture is something that we can change. For that matter, the brain can be changed, too!”
Fiona frowned. “Did you hear something?”
“No,” the man answered. “Why, did you?”
“Yes, you did!” Kitayama yelled, waving his arms to get their attention.
“I guess not,” she said, casting an unseeing glance in Kitayama’s direction. Her brow smoothed. “Shall we go?”
Kitayama watched in dismay as the man leaned across the table to kiss Fiona on the cheek.
“Ciao,” he said, and walked away.
Kitayama took a step toward the woman, and just as his foot fell, he woke up. “Thank goodness that’s over!” he thought, breathing a sigh of relief, “I guess it was just a bad dream.”
And so ends the dream. But the story continues on . . .
The Story Behind the Story
My work over the past several years has taken me deep into the interdisciplinary and comparative study of race and ethnicity, with the result that I have learned much about human motivation and behavior — especially about how humans respond to others whom they see as essentially different from themselves. I have also confronted the wide gap between what scholars of race and ethnicity know about the workings of race as a globalized system of social distinction and inequality on one side, and the way race is talked about by almost everyone for whom it is not an object of study on the other. Most people still believe that race — if they believe it exists at all — is essential to the person. According to the Western origin story that emerged in the 15th century and coalesced into a relatively coherent narrative in the 18th and 19th centuries, race is an immutable and stable essence found within a person’s body, blood, or DNA. Race, in this account, is something a person either has or is.
But, as Hazel Markus and I argue in Doing Race, race is not a thing at all. Rather, it is a doing — a dynamic and ongoing system of historically-derived and institutionalized ideas and practices. As we define it, “doing race” always involves creating ethnic groups based on perceived physical and behavioral characteristics, associating differential power and privilege with these characteristics, and then justifying the resulting inequalities. [xiii] We did not invent this alternative understanding of race (although we are doing our part to elucidate and extend it); it is a conception that has emerged over the past several decades among scholars of race and ethnicity working in various disciplines. But it remains a largely untold tale — overwritten and crowded out of the public sphere by the more familiar story in which race is a matter of biological endowment.
One common way of doing race involves assimilating new information, incidents, people, and scientific studies to the old and familiar story of race — even when the subject has nothing to do with race, per se. Such assimilation occurs because something about that information, incident, person or study is coded for race in the mind of the person, or within the logic of the institution, that is doing the assimilating. I could give countless examples, but I focus here on one that addresses a topic previously treated in this forum — namely the way in which “human cognition and emotion is embodied and embrained.” [xiv] The case involves a study described in an article by Jinkyung Na and Shinobu Kitayama entitled “Spontaneous Trait Inference is Culture Specific: Behavioral and Neural Evidence.” [xv] As my story indicates, the study provides evidence regarding the specific ways in which culturally-variable values and practices are embrained.
My muse, then, came in the form of the pre-publication publicity for Na and Kitayama study. Even though the content of the news stories hew closely to the press release issued by the APS, the headlines under which they appear clearly frame the study in terms of race. This is happening, I submit, both because the word “culture” is sometimes recruited as a proxy for “race” in common parlance, and because the familiar story of race predisposes us to understand the differences between European and Asian populations in biological, rather than cultural, terms.
To be clear, there are two points I am making with this post. The first is that culture is a significant shaper of human cognition, motivation, and emotion. The second is that the story of race as a biological thing that humans either have or are is not only inaccurate, but also it serves to distort our understanding of human nature. Another way of saying this is that human difference really matters — but not in the way most people think it does.
Whether and how humans understand the workings and significance of both culture and race will significantly affect the trajectory of our human story. I wonder — how we will write the ending?
[i] Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, Motivation,” Psychological Review 98.2 (1991): 224-253.
—, “Cultures and Selves: A Cycle of Mutual Constitution,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 5.4 (2010): 420-420.
Shinobu Kitayama and Jiyoung Park, “Cultural Neuroscience of the Self: Understanding the Social Grounding of the Brain,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 5.2-3 (2010): 121.
[ii] I take the nickname for this allegorical character from the word reconocimiento, which is Spanish for recognition.
[iii] Markus and Kitayama, “Culture and the Self.”
[iv] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002) 39.
[v] Shinobu Kitayama and Steve Tompson, “Envisioning the Future of Cultural Neuroscience.” Asian Journal of Social Psychology 13 (2010): 97-99.
[vi] Kitayama and Tompson.
[vii] Shinobu Kitayama and Ayse K. Uskul, “Culture, Mind, and the Brain: Current Evidence and Future Directions,” Annual Review of Psychology 62 (2011): 419-449.
[viii] Kitayama and Park.
[ix] Association for Psychological Science, “Actions and Personality, East and West,” EurekAlert! 11 April 2011. 14 April 2011 (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-04/afps-aap041111.php)
[x] Association for Psychological Science, “Cultural Differences Are Evident Deep in the Brain of Caucasian and Asian People,” ScienceDaily®. 13 April 2011. 14 April 2011 (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110411163922.htm)
[xi] The term “Caucasian” as a specifically racial term for white people was invented by the German scholar Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in 1795.
[xii] Fiona MacRae, “Why People with a European Backgrounds Can’t Help but Judge a Book by Its Cover,” MailOnline.com. 13 April 2011. 14 April 2011 (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1376398/Why-people-European-background-help-judge-book-cover.html)
[xiii] Paula M. L. Moya and Hazel Rose Markus, “Doing Race: An Introduction.” Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010) 1-102.
[xiv] Although my post is not a direct response to Robert Sapolsky’s excellent post, “This is Your Brain on Metaphors,” mine was inspired by and is in conversation with that earlier post. Sapolsky’s meditation on metaphors started me thinking about the power of stories, and his claim that “human cognition and emotions are not only embodied, they are embrained” prompted me to wonder what difference cultural variability might make to the process and product of embrainment.
[xv] Jinkyung Na and Shinobu Kitayama, “Spontaneous Trait Inference Is Culture Specific: Behavioral and Neural Evidence,” forthcoming in Psychological Science.