The Hypocrisy Curtain

More evidence for the hypothesis that human brains are huge mainly to hypocritically evade rules: cultural barriers often consist in advantages locals get by knowing which rules they can safely break:

Tim Wu grew up in Canada with a white mother and a Taiwanese father, which allows him an interesting perspective on how whites and Asians perceive each other. … “There is this automatic assumption in any legal environment that Asians will have a particular talent for bitter labor,” …

By contrast, the white lawyers he encountered had a knack for portraying themselves as above all that. “White people have this instinct that is really important: to give off the impression that they’re only going to do the really important work. You’re a quarterback. It’s a kind of arrogance that Asians are trained not to have. Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.”

This idea of a kind of rule-governed rule-breaking—where the rule book was unwritten but passed along in an innate cultural sense—is perhaps the best explanation I have heard of how the Bamboo Ceiling functions in practice. (more; HT John Wilson)

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • Besides lack of perfect cultural knowledge, it seems that Asians lose in many social situations by coming from a culture where aggression is not as valuable a tactic as it is in Western culture.

    In a traditional society your reputation counts for more, so aggression for short-term gains is counterproductive. In a mobile, atomized society, however, people can evade reputational costs with impunity. And so short-term social strategies (aggression, manipulation, truth-fudging) are increasingly valuable, while long-term strategies (diligence, loyalty, conscientiousness) are less valuable. And so it stands to reason that folks raised on the memes of a traditional society lose out.

    • anon

      This does not explain why such folks perform relatively poorly in the workplace, where reputational info about coworkers is abundant (obviously not perfect). Part of the problem is that they are bad at doing self-promotion in other contexts where info is a lot poorer, so aggression and excessive confidence are expected.

      The “rule-breaking” example is a case in point: sure, you can break the “rule” which would assign you a lot of boring and easy work. But that’s essentially volunteering for the really hard and important stuff: people will not do this unless they are confident about their ability, whether that confidence is justified or not.

      • The modern workforce is actually both a major driver and a prototypical example of what I mean by “fluidity.” Yes it’s more stable than, say, a crowded subway (where, by the way norms favor even more aggressive behavior!). But people come and go within the span of a few years, and a relatively small fraction of their little reputational information is taken from one job to the next. Contrast this to, say, Japanese employment practices, where jobs-for-life are common. The latter seems closer to traditional employment practices in agriculture or small family farms. Western cultures have had a longer period of wealth and mobility, and so their cultural norms have had more time to become well adapted to this new environment.

      • Tony B

        PeterW – what makes you so sure that it’s a case of better adaptation, rather than a difference that came about chaotically as the two systems grew? Not everything is adaptive, sometimes things just happen…

      • Well, for one thing, current Western cultures grew originated from more traditional cultures, and the changes – lower social capital, increased focus on ie the value of confidence – are visible in the historical record and indeed within the lifetimes of many people still alive. “Random happenstance” might be a good explanation if cultures were relatively static, but this shift, in tandem with changing social landscapes, looks mighty adaptive.

  • Concentration of wealth/opportunity in identifiable, morally irrelevant groups is one reason free market economics and political democracy can never coexist.

  • Robert Koslover

    So why are dolphin’s brains so large?

    • Never trust a dolphin.

    • Diet rich in omega 3 fats lifted nutritional requirements; complex social life, communication and cultural inheritance create the pressure, no pelvic bottleneck worth mentioning and many millions of years head start.

  • This is just evidence that norms and norm-breaking is important for human. I don’t see how this says anything about brain size or the fraction of the brain devoted to homo hippocritus / double-think, or any evidence that this drove human intelligence rather than being a mere product of it.

    • I second this. Hypocritical behavior seems more likely to have been an exaptation of the evolution of rules and norms, particularly as societies got larger and richer. Breaking subtle rules, and more importantly, knowing which rules to break signals that you are part of the ‘really in-group’.

      This whole discussion puts me in mind of the techniques (like ambient music, decor, menu, pricing, etc.) that businesses and individuals use to subtly exclude certain unwanted groups (ostensibly while paying lip service to some notion of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’) now that explicit discrimination is illegal.

    • William Newman

      I third this. I see the evidence that there’s lots of hypocrisy. But Robin Hanson wrote “human brains are huge mainly to hypocritically evade rules”. “Mainly”? That I don’t see.

      Off the top of my head, humans make fire and clothing and weapons and traps, humans make tools to support all of those things, humans pass down adaptive knowledge by language and diagrams, humans are shrewd enough to reputedly do things like driving prey animals to stampede to their deaths that other pack hunters are physically capable of but don’t (AFAIK) do very much, and humans may also naturally be able to keep larger bands stable (against various kinds of cheating and defection) than other pack hunters. Those are quite a few selective advantages that seem to be very strongly dependent on large brains, and conversely I’m having trouble thinking of many of the traits that helped our ancestors take over the world that didn’t depend on large brains. I can understand how people get puzzled about chicken and egg issues early in the takeoff of intelligence in the human lineage when a lot of the obvious advantages would seem to depend on big coadaptations like bipedalism. Possibly at some time in that early period social skills like hypocrisy were key in getting the big brain ball rolling. But when considering any period when humans already had fire, clothing, and weapons, I think we should require strong evidence for the proposition that human brains are large mainly for social reasons, and even stronger evidence that they are large mainly for the single social reason of hypocritically evading rules.

      I do think it’s likely that human brains are huge in large part to outcompete other humans. But why should I think that hypocrisy is the key advantage that big brains bring in that competition? More important than being better at communication, or being better at toolmaking, or being better at planning, or being better at fighting, or being better at keeping track of a large amount of data about the other humans that one interacts with and synthesizing conclusions from it?

      Finally, it seems to me that Wu’s report actually suggests a difficulty for the hypothesis that human brains are large primarily for hypocrisy. If Wu is correct that people of Chinese extraction are at a disadvantage in Western countries due to less hypocrisy, we could combine that fact with the observation that people of Chinese extraction do reasonably well in Western countries by many measures, and conclude that hypocrisy seems not to be the most effective thing for a competitive human to devote neurons to.

  • Simfish InquilineKea

    Norms and norm-breaking is also probably the reason crows (and kea parrots) are also so intelligent. They practically capture an unique niche in trolling other animals.

  • OhioStater

    I read the rest of the article and it doesn’t seem the individuals quoted had any appreciation of leisure. It’s as if they saw work and achievement as an end rather than as a means.

    I define leisure in a Veblen sense with activities like golfing, reading, traveling, and recreational basketball leagues.

    So Asian sees work as an end, and a westerner sees work as a mean, with success leading to 1pm tee times, sun, and bloody mary’s on a week day.

    If management, leadership, and ownership are leisure positions, then it’s fair the current management would look for people that also value leisure.

    • Kevin

      I just want to note that “recreation” is an interesting word, it seems inherently Christian. The whole idea that after work you are supposed to rest, and that there is supposed to be this division between work and rest, might not be assumed by other cultures.

      Leisure, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily free from labor. It is time that isn’t obligated to someone else. In my opinion, leisure seems to be primarily a status thing, like the way we understand “travel”, for traveling isn’t traveling just anyplace, but only certain places. Golfing is also high-status. Maybe the problem with the western concept of leisure is that it is too much about social signaling.

      • Sister Y

        Defining the difference between “work” and “leisure” in economics is actually a complex problem with a whole literature behind it.

  • Nathan

    Robin (and everyone who reads), do you read/listen to Steven Pinker?

    Watch: 55:00 – 61:00, more specifically, 59:00 – 61:00

    He basically summarizes linguistic evidence of hypocrisy, motivations for these uses of hypocrisy in our language, and how it relates to status/relationship types.

  • Prakash

    Open question to the group here.

    Imagine a situation where there are more competitive governments, whether through seasteads or charter cities. In that milieu, do you think that asians would do better or more or less the same as now?

    • fructose

      It’s an interesting question. I would say Asians would fare somewhat worse. A lot of the Asian success I see after the immigrant generation comes from the professions: accountants, doctors, lawyers, academics, scientists.

      These are government subsidized and government protected career fields (which is why risk averse Asian parents push their kids to grind away for years to achieve entry in these cartels). In competitive government, the government has less power to award rents to groups.

      In contrast, non-immigrant White success seems more concentrated in corporate management and owning small to medium sized businesses. Those would fare better in a more competitive environment, since they benefit from lower taxes and competition.

  • Schneierhas a book on security and hypocrisy coming out. From how he describes it here

    it seems like he defends homo hypocricus as necessary or at least inevitable.

  • Rule avoidance or rule breaking is as important cultural component inside Asia as anywhere. That said, the reality is the Asian elites press their entitlements, cling to their privileges, and fight against modern elements who threaten to break their hold on society and the economy.

    There are hardcore, historical structural elements in Asia that don’t correspond easily to the more egalitarian West. An American quarterback is selected by his skill for the job. As far as I know there are no quarterbacks playing professional football who ‘inherited’ their position. Or were awarded the position because of their family influence.

    Culture in the West has traveled a long distance from the hierarchical social, political and economic that underscores the cultural system in Asia. It is a different game that is being played. Asian concepts about rank and status based on family and tight knit social networks have created a web of hypocrisy (to rationalize a system that otherwise appears badly dated) and the resulting cognitive dissonance has placed the ruling classes under considerable pressure in many Asian countries.

    The upshot is, in my opinion, the correspondent of the article while addressing rule breaking in the American context should be assumed to speak about breaking the rules inside an Asian culture.

  • Pingback: Recomendaciones « intelib()

  • Miley Cyrax

    Ah, so apparently it’s okay to speculate on whether or not Asians are passive and uncreative, but the second someone ponders whether blacks are lazy and dumb all political correct hell breaks loose.

  • Pingback: Link roundup | weeklypop()

  • Rule avoidance or rule breaking is as important cultural component inside Asia as anywhere. That said, the reality is the Asian elites press their entitlements, cling to their privileges, and fight against modern elements who threaten to break their hold on society and the economy.

  • perde

    Imagine a situation where there are more competitive governments, whether through seasteads or charter cities. In that milieu, do you think that asians would do better or more or less the same as now?