Dominant or Deferential? Looking at the Brain

One of the interesting things about expats in Korea, and one’s interactions with Koreans, is how some things about Korean society can be so baffling to one. For example, if you look at the comments to this post at Gusts of Popular Feeling (to which comments thread I have contributed a lot, and contributed more today, though they may not show up for a few days, or completely) you’ll see “The Korean” presenting his argument as to why, though he thinks the older woman was out line for pushing things to the point they reached, the younger woman was at fault for the altercation — and why he thinks the older woman had the right to slap the girl for speaking in “banmal,” a form of address in Korean that is appropriate to peers, close friends, and sometimes to family, but not to elders and strangers.

He makes the point that Westerners–or at least, the Anglophone commenters on the post–just don’t get it about “banmal.” The Anglos commenting there tend not to be very interested in that distinction. As you can see, I take a slightly different tack, suggesting that using “respect” is a misuse of the word when applied to the kind of attitude that The Korean is advocating is normative in Korean society between older and younger.

It seems to me “deference” is much more fitting, since “respect,” as an English word, carries a lot more egalitarian overtones today; it is not one-sided, it does not flow simply from older to younger, it is contextual, and one is not obligated to extend it to someone simply on the basis of the other’s birth year in relation to one’s own. Indeed, the Anglophone concept of respect is much more fluid, flexible, and responsive to circumstantial specifics than the deference to elders that the commenter The Korean is talking about.

The question, though, is why the concept of deference is so much of a turnoff to so many North Americans. After all, I’ve commented before that it seems North Americans seem simply not to have in their “social equipment” something that many Koreans seem to have, which takes the form of a learned capacity to just shut up and defer to older people on the basis of age, and/or voice volume, even when they’re idiots… we may bow out, we may mock, we may ignore, but we tend not to defer. Perhaps I am more defiant than some, but in general I think we perceive deferring to someone we personally consider wrong, mistaken, or even an idiot, as an act of cowardice. The thought of such a deference makes our skin crawl, for all kinds of reasons.

This is not to say that we Anglos are all hellbent on dominance, of course. We love it when we argue with people who stick to their guns–as long as they are doing their best to be sane and reasonable and rational. (We don’t love talking to people who lie, cheat, prevaricate, or simply reject the point of any discussion, but we can agree to disagree, even when we disagree every strongly. And age has very little to do with how we present that disagreement.)

Well, as discussed in a great article over at the Tufts Magazine website (and another article at the APA website) what scientists are discovering about how culture impacts the brain–brain plasticity and how culture shapes it–offers an interesting picture of why this fundamental disjunction of attitudes and perceptions might have come to be. Japanese and American test subjects showed very different neurological reactions to the same business leaders: Japanese preferred leaders with “warm” faces, while Americans preferred those with “powerful” faces. Which raises the question (and the emphasis here is mine, but the text is from the first article linked above):

… what accounts for strong differences in preferences, leading to very different actions in the real world?

Part of the answer might lie in a similar set of studies done by Freeman. He measured the brainwaves of American and Japanese subjects who were shown silhouettes of bodies in postures categorized as “dominant” and “subordinate” (for example, one of someone standing tall with arms crossed and another of someone with head bowed and arms hanging). “It’s been known for a long time that Western cultures encourage dominance and Japanese cultures more subordination in line with collectivist thinking,” Freeman says. “I was looking to see if these East Asians and Westerners perceive dominant and subservient bodies in a different way.”

The results, published in the journal Neuroimage in April 2009, indicate that here, too, people often travel the same route yet end up at destinations miles apart. The silhouettes matching cultural preferences activated another distinct area of the brain in both groups: the limbic reward system. This is the system that releases dopamine into the bloodstream in response to pleasurable stimuli such as drugs, sex, or food. But it’s also engaged whenever the brain wants to tell the body to go after something in the outside world—to pick up a desired cup of coffee or grab a favorite magazine off the rack.

“I found that dominant bodies activated this classic kind of reward circuitry in Westerners and subordinate bodies activated the same reward circuitry for Japanese people,” says Freeman. What’s more, the magnitude of the limbic response corresponded nearly exactly to the subjects’ responses to questionnaire statements about their level of dominance in the world (“I want to control the conversation” and “I am not afraid of providing criticism”). “So if I’m an American, the more dominant I behave in the real world, the more my brain activates the reward regions when thinking about dominance,” Freeman says.

While it’s impossible to rule out genetic differences between races to explain these differences in brain function, evidence increasingly points to culture as the deciding factor. Ambady and Bharucha both caution that further studies are needed—perhaps involving adopted children or immigrants—to determine exactly where genetics ends and culture begins. The most recent studies in the field, however, have already begun to show how malleable the structure of the brain is in response to cultural stimuli.

This has some pretty stunning implications, of course, in terms of how it affects the lives of immigrant people in both directions–Asians going to the West, and Westerners going to Asia. (I don’t know enough about different African and South Asian cultural structure to say anything about that.) It would explain why Westerners have such trouble dealing with the hierarchic, deference-based social organization of a number of Northeast Asian societies, particularly the more strict ones in Korea and Japan. It’s not just that deference isn’t part of the social equipment for a Westerner, but rather that the expectation that one be deferential, and the witnessing of all this deference around oneself, probably does promote a specific, and likely unpleasant, neurological reaction. After all, we’re wired not only to not feel so great about deference ourselves, but we’re also, perhaps, wired to distrust it in others (because in part we model our understanding of others’ actions on how we imagine the emotional or strategic impetus to take those actions).

At the same time, it might explain why (as many Koreans who’ve gone abroad and returned, Korean-Americans, and expats from these places have claimed to me, and as I experienced in at least one case) Korean expatriate communities in places like the US, UK, and Indonesia are so notoriously self-isolative, interacting less with non-Koreans than most other groups: their wiring, after all, isn’t really set up such that they’re going to fit right in; they’re programmed, in fact, to act in ways that will deprivilege them in a dominance-favoring society. (And this may go some ways to explaining the kind of negative stereotypes that have accrued around the Asian-American male, for example, as well as the more ambiguously exotic notions lots of westerners have about “deference” in Asian women.)

As well, it likely explains why there is such conflict in Asian-American literature between parents and children who are growing up as natives of the Western culture to which the parents transplanted themselves: the literary pattern here does seem, in my experience, to reflect a real life familial tension, but what’s interesting is that this tension has to do with the way the brain is wired through a decade or two of social experience. (Presumably kids homeschooled by first-generation Korean-Australian, or Chinese-American, or Japanese-Canadian parents and exposed less to that Western society in general would tend to have wiring similar to their parents, while kids out in school and having a normal North American social life would be wired in a way that would conflict with the way their parents are wired.)

And that’s the interesting thing: it seems to be wiring, resulting from cultural experience, that makes it so hard to get a handle on certain aspects of one anothers’ cultures. This is comforting as one considers, as I have been doing lately, how very hard it can be for some of us expatriates to be really happy in a society like Korea’s.

Interestingly, one of the few Westerners I know who’s been here long enough for the first few years of fun and adventure to give way to frustration, reacted to this story (when I mentioned it to him) in terms of wondering to what degree he’d rewired himself over many years in Korea, and wondering how it boded for his readjustment to some English-speaking society, if and when he eventually repatriates or, at least, leaves Korea.

There are implications for Korean society to mull over, too. For example, from the second article I linked above (but here’s the link again):

Northwestern University’s Joan Chiao, PhD, for example, has found that people who live in collectivist cultures are more likely than those in individualistic cultures to have a form of the serotonin transporter gene — the S-allele — that correlates with higher rates of negative affect, anxiety and depression.

In contrast to what you might expect from the genes alone, she also found that people from collectivist societies are less likely to be depressed. This suggests that collectivism, which tends to produce lower levels of negative affect, may have co-evolved with the S-allele, says Chiao, who published her findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Science (Vol. 277, No. 1,681). In other words, she explains, societies of people with the S-allele developed a collectivist culture that reduced stress and, therefore, risk of depression by emphasizing social harmony and social support.

“Culture may make us rethink the role of this serotonin transporter physiology,” says University of Michigan neuroscientist Israel Liberzon, MD. “If it’s very common in East Asian groups, but the prevalence of depression is not higher, it somehow interacts with their lives differently.”

Which is a very pretty sounding story, until you notice that those collectivist societies, like Korea and Japan, are leading the world in suicide rates, in youth suicide, and in celebrity suicide. (Wikipedia even has an article on Suicide in Korea, it’s such a big issue.) Likely, shifts in the way collectivism is performed in daily life have something to do with this: while Korean society prides itself on traditions and conservativism and its cultural uniqueness, many people seem more than anything to live the epitome of the modern urban nightmare: crammed into a box, working a job they don’t care about, commuting for hours, not knowing their neighbors. If B.R. Myers’ comment is brought to mind about how North Korean propaganda looks less like a Communist state’s propaganda than a fascist state trying to fake being communist, I think the same could be true for urban South Koreans’s traditionalism, and especially “jeong” or “social harmony” (if we must translate it): as The Joshing Gnome argues, it seems almost absent from most interactions, thus the object of constant fetishization.

4 thoughts on “Dominant or Deferential? Looking at the Brain

  1. I’d like to see the effect of language along the same lines. As you know, Korea has the “respectful” form of conversation used for conversations with people generally above their station, and “normal” form. (One may argue that there is a “dismissive” form as well, and historically, there has been several more levels of respective form).

    What I find is that when I use the Korean “respective” form, I feel that I am putting some distance between myself and the person who I am speaking to. When I use the Korean “normal” form, I am perhaps putting myself too close to the person who I am speaking to.

    On the other hand, when I use English which do not distinguish “respectful” and “normal” (except perhaps in some vocabulary), I tend to place myself in between the above two forms. I also feel much freer to criticize and express my cynicism than when I am using the repectful form in Korean.

    I would love to see how this observation compares with, say, the French which has the “vous” form for respect. Whether it’s hardwired to the language center and the brain, or whether it’s just me or the Korean culture.

  2. Junsok,

    I wouldn’t be surprised if research into language has been done, but I don’t know about it.

    It certainly fits my understanding of cultural transition and vestigal features of language. I get the feeling the French went through what Korean society is going through, back during the first few generations of its own urbanization.

    (The old models don’t really fit the new life. Like, in a village or even a neighborhood in a small city, you always knew (approximately) how old someone was, and could parse their relationship and rank in terms of your own effortlessly; in a city, that kind of thing becomes much more contrived, not just because strangerdom floods the space between people (there is, effectively, no real relationship and rank becomes moot) and the penalties for behaviour unthinkable in a small town or village disappear.

    What I’m saying is that I think French people are probably a lot more like English or American people than Koreans (or, more pertinently, French people from 300 years ago) in how they actually process the relationships they have with people. At least, that’s my experience in Montreal, and with my extended family.

    And hell, I’m not so sure English didn’t have strict and formal registers of formal and informal speech at some point. Latinate and French-based speech, versus the more Germanic peasant language. I wonder to what degree one spoke to one’s social betters in a more overtly formalized way in Jolly Olde Angelonde, back in the day. We were, after all, a pretty strictly hierarchic and caste society too, though not so strictly and, from what I’ve read, inflexibly, as Korea was. (Few societies seem to go quite that extreme about it.)

    And it’s imaginable that some unknown number of generations from now, all the formality in spoken and written Korean will remain but may perhaps be vestigal in terms of how cultural hierarchy actually works in that future Korean society. (But of course, that really depends on all kinds of factors. I’m personally wondering whether a combination of peak oil and general worldwide stupidity about alternative energy might not take the current form of globalization offline in a generation or two. If that happens, I’d say the process would likely reverse.

    Also, this is interesting:

    On the other hand, when I use English which do not distinguish “respectful” and “normal” (except perhaps in some vocabulary), I tend to place myself in between the above two forms.

    For me, formal and informal are modes that I tend to modulate between in any given exchange. In fact, part of what I teach students about academic writing, and presentation-making, is that modulating between different modes of expression is a good, useful thing. I always had a vague sense of that, but Gerald Graff made very clear to me in his book about what we are and are not (and ought to be) teaching university students, Clueless in Academe, which I reviewed here.

    I tend to modulate between formal and informal often in conversation, often using informal to drive a point home, and formal to show that I actually know what the hell I’m talking about. I mean to say, the formal and informal in English tend for me to be much more tools for conveying the content, rather than any overt social contrivance aimed at making things nice between me and the listener.

    Indeed, a certain degree of the way I talk with people depends on my not making nice, being anti-formal indeed, in a way that is fundamentally communicative in itself. My students giggle when I use words like “bullshit,” or jokingly accuse them mentally cussing me out when I give a big homework assignment, but on one level I’m trying to point out that intellectual thinking and speech and normal thinking speech forms don’t have a solid line between them: they’re interdependent and reinforce one another, that instead of being simply formal places classrooms should be places of discourse, debate, and learning, and so on. Also, that normal people who curse like sailors can be the same people who know their Foucault, who can deconstruct a film, who can argue for this or that form of social reform or this or that political issue. It’s not just old men in suits who have power over the debate, because the debate is made not of grey hairs, but of language.

    (Though now I’m laughing at the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, Bok Geo-il–wasn’t it?–is right that English should become the official language of the Korean government. I thought that was crazy when I heard it, but if shifting to English prevents disasters for Korean Air, perhaps the Korean national government should shift over too. I mean, presumably the same PDI (power distance index) that applies to Korean Air cockpit crew applies in various branches of the government as well. Hmmmm. Of course, it’ll never happen, and perhaps it’d be a really bad idea in how it might silence a lot more people than it gave voice to. But it’s an interesting thought.)

    (And I must admit that all the rules about formality in Korean are one of the things in the language that I find outright uncomfortable when I speak it, such as I am able to do. I find myself personally aggravated, if that’s the right word, that I’m supposed to be so much more polite to someone because they happened to be born at some point before I was. I can parse–though I resent–formality with authority figures, but the arbitrariness of birth rank is something that ceaselessly gives me pause. Stubborn, my heart seems. I don’t think it’s bad, though.)

  3. One of my korean friends I would like to call a yangban. He behaves like a british gentleman. He is proud of his century old descent . He would never, never! behave like this elder women.

    1. Jens-Olaf,

      That’s cool. Of course, I think very little of centuries-old descent. Being born into a family that tracked or didn’t track that is roll of the dice if you ask me. But I am of the impression it’s more than just imperialist nonsense to suggest that the Joseon Dynasty was “moribund” and that the yangban deserve some of the blame for the resulting vulnerability.

      I’m not a historian, though: this is just the impression I get from people who have talked about history with me.

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