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Unknown Unknowns: The Problem of Hypocognition (scientificamerican.com)
95 points by draenei 7 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

Complete aside here, but this concept of Amae and hypocognition hit really close to home. My girlfriend is white and I am an E. Asian guy, we have completely different concepts of love and I suspect our unwillingness to compromise to the other's perspective is a kind of unwillingness to concede our cultural preference to the other.

For example, if I don't express enough words of affirmation or desire over a given period of time, she begins to worry that I no longer care for her and have lost interest. In fact, the opposite is true! In my culture, maintaining control of your own emotional expressions is considered polite and civil, emotional stability is the marker of a mature individual, especially when that stability is expressed in times where it is inconvenient for the individual to do so.

However, from her perspective, that approach is repressive, "befuddling and Machiavellian to a Western mind". Perhaps cultural perspectives, combined with hypocognition, inevitably cause different cultures to be inclined towards conflict toward one another?

> “If a continental youth wants to declare his love to a girl, he kneels down, tells her that she is the sweetest, the most charming and ravishing person in the world, that she has something in her, something peculiar and individual which only a few hundred thousand other women have and that he would be unable to live one more minute without her. Often, to give a little more emphasis to the statement, he shoots himself on the spot. This is a normal, week-day declaration of love in the more temperamental continental countries. In England the boy pats his adored one on the back and says softly: ‘I don’t object to you, you know.’ If he is quite mad with passion, he may add: ‘I rather fancy you, in fact.”

“How to be an Alien” by George Mikes

IMHO as a bi-racial person who has spent over a decade on three separate continents, I have come to a very different perspective on culturally-driven explanations for mores and behaviours like Amae, and appeals to duty /conformism/emotional repression. I don't beleive they are anything more than rationalizations for ingrained society-wide behavioral dysfunction.

IMHO, that is.

I'm inclined to agree, having lived in two different cultures. And most of these dysfunctions are rooted in very similar things when you dig down far enough into them, they pretty much always come down to status issues, just differently expressed and differently rationalized.

The trick is to realize that pretty much no culture is free from this, but I won't say that all cultures are the same.

What exactly do you mean by societal dysfunction? Or is it like pornography: you know it when you see it.

I'm not using the phrase with any formality, I was just trying to find a term that encompassed every situation where people behaved according to publicly acknowledge social scripts, and suffered as a result.

So, any situation where dictates of a society creates a suboptimal social interaction could be considered a social dysfunction?

Maybe something like this?


> in shame-based cultures, public humiliation, scorn, or censure are relied upon more heavily to keep individuals in obedience whereas the western notion of guilt and corrective behaviors comes from an individual’s development of an internal conscience.


Or Midwestern culture's mix of religosity, conformist individualism and confirmation bias, and the resultant suicide and opioid addiction epidemic.

I'd like to see the studies about "conformist individualism and confirmation bias". Surely that wasn'n just a kneejerk "I know you are, but what am I" reaction.

I'm neither from the midwest, or a shame-based culture, though, I have immediate in-law family from both, and relatives I visit, obviously.

Check the NIH for studies, though the bulk of the literature is behind the academic paywall.

But that just begs the question. What’s classified as a “behavioral dysfunction” is going to depend on your culture. If you come from a more “open” culture, a more reserved one will seem repressed and controlling. If you come from a more reserved culture, a more “open” culture might seem childish and unable to handle their own emotions.

No it doesn't: it depends on whether it's dysfunctional or not. Even if the people involved don't see the dysfunction.

Genital mutilation is mentally unhealthy. And yet, many of the people who suffered it insist it's 'their culture' and perform it on their offspring: FGM is a tradition which is passed down and performed by women with FGM.

You may want to argue that that is an extreme example, but there's no big line between this and any other deleterious cultural conscripted conformation - just distance.

I think Sangermaine is right. While the example you gave is certainly, obviously, deleterious, what about countries where the work week is culturally < 40 hours per week? What about those who, on average, work 80+ hours. At what degree is it a "dysfunction". The decision of what is or is not a dysfunction is not as cut and dry as you assume because you are assuming the parameters by which such dysfunctions are determined are as universal as the claims of dysfunction themselves. This cannot be the case, it dismisses too many shades of gray by saying only the colors of black and white are "real" colors.

I never said that differences in effectiveness of societal functions were cut and dry.

I posited that they existed, cultural relativism notwithstanding, and the difference the were being discussed, along with the reactive denials they elicited, were an example of that.

>No it doesn't: it depends on whether it's dysfunctional or not. Even if the people involved don't see the dysfunction.

“It’s dysfunctional because it’s dysfunctional.”

I hope I don’t have to explain why this is, again, begging the question.

What is “dysfunctional”? That’s largely culturally determined, because what’s “functional” is relative to the environmental you’re in.

You seem to conflating morality or human rights with mental dysfunction. I suspect you are doing this because it’s easier than addressing the comment thread I was replying to regarding “open” vs “closed” cultures. What is the objectively correct “functional” mode of human interaction?

> > No it doesn't: it depends on whether it's dysfunctional or not. Even if the people involved don't see the dysfunction.

> “It’s dysfunctional because it’s dysfunctional.”

> I hope I don’t have to explain why this is, again, begging the question.

I think your response also begs the question, assuming an empiricism that should at least be argued. That is, it seems to me that you conflate a non-definition ("there is an absolute notion of dysfunction, although I don't know how to define it") with a circular definition ("dysfunction is the state of being dysfunctional"). These may be equally useful in the present, but the first, which seems to me to be what WalterSear is saying, can be imagined as a spur to useful future discussion (either arguing that there is no such absolute notion, or seeking out the correct absolute notion); whereas the latter is clearly useless and is, I think, an incorrect summary of WalterSear's position.

(Can you really pin down any concept—like morality or human rights, which you mention later—to the degree of specificity that you are requiring of the definition of 'dysfunction'? I know I can't.)

> "there is an absolute notion of dysfunction, although I don't know how to define it"

Don't put words in my mouth and expect me to debate you.

Mea culpa, I mistook your complex discussion for another round of reactive meandering.

Good thing we have a thoroughly cross-cultural construct for developing an understanding of exactly that: clinical psychology.

So, yes, we do know what dysfunction looks like, to an extent.

Psychology has a poor track of reproducibility, so it is not good at understanding yet.

Not to mention that results can also vary depending on, you guessed it, culture.

Cultural psychology is the field that investigates this. By investigating phenomenon in multiple cultures, you get a better idea of what the actual phenomenon you are investigating is, and what is a byproduct of culture. It's not a perfect, obviously, since we are all as much a product of our culture as anything else.

In any case, just because we the tools we have are still in their infancy, that doesn't somehow implies that A) they are utterly useless for anything at all, or B) that every culture everywhere is a perfect realization of a human conception of life, each one exactly equal of any other and none of them at all with any growing up to do.

It's just silly all around.

Your response demonstrates your ignorance of psychology if you’re not even aware of how results often vary across cultures. One area to start educating yourself in is looking into the discussion in the last decade or so of how psychological research has been skewed by over-reliance on “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Democratic) test subjects, and that studies with subjects from places without these attributes often produce different results.

You don’t seem to understand what you’re talking about in the slightest.

We warned you before about attacking other users like this. If you do it again, we will ban your account. Please review https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and follow the rules when posting here.

I have an MS in research psychology.

Notice that the OP's love language of "Quiet stability" is not listed there.

It's sorely undermentioned and often told that it's "wrong" in common western culture, even though tons of people (especially men) within it have that love language. That arbitrarily enshrined list of 5 is absolutely not representative of everybody.

Merging research and anecdotal experience, I can say that east Asians tend to understand life in terms of duty. Happiness and satisfaction are understood as intrinsic to the fulfillment of those duties, and as a result any perceived shortcoming in emotional payoff is seen as the fault of the feeler, not the fault of the stimulus. Not happy? Just get check whatever box on the "what you're supposed to be doing with your life" list. Still not happy? Sorry, you are a broken failure. Unless you pretend like you're happy. I suspect many who subscribe to such a worldview can at least somewhat successfully make themselves happy through pretending to be happy, because acting the part fulfills yet another order of social duty. If everyone around you subscribes to this worldview, then indeed you can feel the self worth boost that comes from the authentic contribution of fulfilling your socially prescribed duties. However, if you are torn between this worldview and another whose members do not consider your fulfillment of your Confucian duties as valuable, successfully subscribing to such rules becomes much more difficult.

You see this when Asian high schoolers very much not hypocognitive of the concept of Friday night elect to spend it studying (east Asian duty mode), catch heat for it at school the next week (western mode), and then eventually go on to either build a mental model that successfully navigates the conflicting worldviews they're caught between, completely shun one or the other, or suffer a host of mental health issues as a result of being hypocognitive of what's going on in their emotional worlds and feeling deeply and intrinsically hopeless because of it.

Cultural perspectives can be seen as boss level problems of hypocognition. As the article notes, they underlie everything from the immigration-fueled sociopolitical rifts the entire developed world seems to be experiencing right now to other less globe shaking but still mysterious and wicked problems like romantic and familial relationship issues. The way forward is not to assert that any particular perspective is correct, it is to fill in the hypocognitive holes we all possess. Which is unfortunately very hard since not only are the holes invisible unless you are directly invested in finding them, but people are also naturally averse to the notion that their ideas and mental models could possibly be incomplete.

I am a super headstrong first generation child to Chinese immigrant parents. I have a host of mental health issues, and exploring their genesis through a variety of avenues has helped me begin to address them through arriving to some of the understanding I currently hold.

So I have two responses to your comment (which I thought was great btw).

1. I think your assessment of Confucianist culture correct, however, as a counter argument, I think that Western culture can sometimes under value the importance of duty as a facet of happiness. People, to some degree, need to feel useful to be happy. Whether its being useful enough to get a paycheck or to be able to fulfill the needs/wants of friends/family, it doesn't seem to me that the importance of duty is merely an artifact of E. Asian culture.

2. I actually think there is a third problem to the "immigration-fueled sociopolitical rifts" you describe. In my own personal experience, you can fully understand (and even appreciate) the cultural perspective of another and yet fully reject the impact said values have in your life. Understanding != acceptance. Just being you understand something cognitively does not mean that you are required to accept it as an acceptable element of your life emotionally or socially. In fact, when the situation is zero-sum (like you can only spend a certain amount of time either doing your own cultural thing or the cultural thing of another) choosing the other can signal a rejection of your own culture for that of the other, which may very well have some serious social consequences. I don't think the response of "let's just not choose to believe a particular perspective is correct" is effective enough.

1. I did not mean to imply that east Asian culture is inferior. I did mean to imply that it is much less emotionally comprehensive. I agree with you that the concept of duty is sensible and functional on the human race wide scale, and I was asserting that it cannot be a stand-in for all emotional fulfillment in an individual unless the society surrounding the individual also subscribes to that idea.

2. It is certain that there are many, many causes of the global immigration related tensions that we're experiencing now. I did not mean to imply that I think all are required to both understand and accept all perspectives, but rather that having such a personal goal holds plenty of progressive merit given that you think that the vector of progress lies along the direction of increased togetherness. There are merits to other points of view as well. I also urge you not to overestimate yourself, even though I personally have plenty of faith that you are personally very intelligent, and to question the emotion when you begin to feel that you understand another point of view. In my experience you oftentimes actually do not, and that feeling that you do is your brain employing the numerous heuristics its evolved to contain in order to fulfill the incredible task of synthesizing sense out of the chaotic and unfathomable complexity of all things.

Perhaps it's better to say that it would be good to endeavor to develop a perspective that is comprehensively inclusive of all other perspectives that one has encountered and can possibly foresee encountering. So rather than having a quiver of many arrows, there is merit to having a single arrow capable of hitting any target.

That's not an exclusively cross-cultural issue. The tension between duty and emotion is fairly common in western literature.

For example, the entire premise of Lady Windermere's Fan (an Oscar Wilde play) is Lady Windermere interpreting her husband's slightly stiff and dutiful manner as disinterest. To the point where she starts suspecting him of an affair where he turns out to be looking after her mother.

Or more recently, most of the Richard Curtis movies play off similar "comedy of manners" themes as various characters find it hard to express what they feel for one reason or another.

The article starts out about hypocognition but ends up being about availability of vocabulary to express certain concepts.

I would argue that many people can still fluidly intuit a concept even if they don't have a convenient shortcut to express it. Of course, the unavailability of a linguistic shortcut can also point to a poor and unformalized understanding of that concept.

yes, the article does slip from touching on something interesting to the tired ol' Sapir-Whorf framework.

On the other hand while "hypocognition" seens to be an neologism, the concept has been the bread and butter of anthropologists for the last century ...

one only has to spend a little bit of time with a dog to discover hypocognition in action. in fact, seeing how little my dog understands how the world works (simple things like how to get a ball when it's rolled into an empty box)...is diconcerting because humility suggests the same must be true of me. what painfully obvious things about the world around me am I just oblivious to?

Not having the vocabulary to express certain concepts is one half of the Darth Maul lightsaber of hypocognition. The other end is not having the vocabulary to detect certain concepts. You are right, many people can still intuit something they do not have a concept for. But, not being hypocognitive of that thing to begin with would not only help them then express that concept but also initially understand it with more depth.

This seems like useful background: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity

Seriously. The whole article seemed pretty much predicated on the strong form of it being true. When, really, it's just plain false (and the weak form is susceptible, in my opinion, as well).

My first thought.

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