Asians less excited about Obama because less prone to fundamental attributional error? by mattsteinglass
January 15, 2009, 11:47 am
Filed under: Science, United States, Vietnam

I’ve written several articles already about the fact that Vietnamese, while modestly enthusiastic about Obama, don’t think it likely that he will do much to change US policy towards Vietnam. I, like most Americans I think, regard such statements by Vietnamese with a twinge of disappointment: don’t they realize how significant a shift it is when Americans elect someone like Obama rather than someone like Bush? Do they think Obama (and, by extension, Americans in general) doesn’t mean what he says? At some level, I feel like what Vietnamese are saying is: sure, you change your leaders, you say different things, but basically you still behave the same way from one administration to the next. I feel my sincerity is being impugned.

But I was just reading a few posts about the fundamental attributional error, also known as correspondence bias, and it turns out that several studies in social psychology have shown that people from Asian collectivist societies (Japanese and Chinese) tend to attribute causality to context, while people from individualist Western societies tend to attribute it to individuals. Studies have shown that Chinese and Taiwanese focus on context in stories while Americans focus on intentionality of individual characters, and that Japanese attribute directionality in an image of fish to the school, while Americans attribute it to the single fish featured in the front of the image.

Obviously. Duh. Vietnamese see things contextually. They don’t think Obama matters so much because they don’t think any individual matters so much. One of the most frequently used phrases in Vietnamese organizational language is “create favorable conditions”. This sounds intensely irritating to an American ear — we want to hear that you’re going to do something, not that you’re going to create favorable conditions for doing it. Maybe Vietnamese find the phrase just as irritating, but I don’t think so. I think they expect American actions and attitudes to follow the direction in which conditions are most favorable, not to be determined by the individual preferences or character attributes of one guy. And to a great extent they’re probably right.


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