The Global Schoolhouse

Part 2 of 3: The Global Schoolhouse

Last week we set up the metaphor of a global schoolhouse with nations acting more or less in the same manner as schoolchildren. The G20 was used as our analogous “Classroom G,” divided socially along economic lines—developing countries on one side, developed on the other. Next week we will discuss another group in the global schoolhouse—multinational corporations—and how organizations that transcend geographic boundaries may be the answer to the developed-developing divide. But for now, let’s move from the classroom to the schoolyard and discuss the psychology of cliques—the psychology of global discrimination.

As a social clique, the “Western Powers” have played on the schoolyard relatively unopposed for the past 100 years. They generally make their own rules and exclude most newcomers. Sure, the West may have included nations like Japan or Korea, but only because of economic parity—common developed status. Financial prowess is the basis for in-group membership.

Sociologist would call this discrimination “in-group favoritism“—the concept that people positively view their own group’s members while looking upon outsiders with contempt. In-group favoritism, social identity, stereotyping, system justification—these are what fuel discrimination at all levels, and discrimination has been a part of the global schoolyard for centuries.

Developing countries have many obstacles on the road to equality, let alone dominance. Not only do they struggle to improve their skills of the game (economics), they are often closed off from making the rules or even playing in the first place. The popular kids on the schoolyard may justify this exclusion by citing past support or inclusion of Eastern countries like Japan, but ultimately they will continue to exclude. This justification is called “moral licensing.”

Moral licensing is defined loosely as, “being good frees us to be bad” or more specifically, “past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic.” This principle is behind the justification for bad behavior occurring time and again throughout history. 

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized moral licensing  in the first episode of his podcast Revisionist History. In the episode, Gladwell recounts the story of the 19th century British painter, Elizabeth Thompson, who sought entry into the most elite group of English artists of the era—the prestigious Royal Academythought to be made up of the forty most preeminent artists of the time. The problem was that the Acadmey had never had a woman member.

While the 19th century Royal Academy felt a moral obligation to allow the most talented artists into their club, they didn’t want a woman to be such a person. Elizabeth Thompson’s fellowship was put to a vote shortly after her painting The Roll Call (1874) rose to fame, and Thompson narrowly lost the majority required for induction. But almost—the fact that she had been seriously considered (proven by the narrow margin)—was close enough to morally justify nearly 50 more years of male-only membership.

Much like the 19th century Royal Academy was largely shaped by historical precedent and pseudo-supremacy, so too are the “Western Powers” of today. China and other emerging markets are said to be symbols of the global shift in power from established G7 economies to rapidly developing nations; however, like Elizabeth Thompson’s denial of acceptance, social barriers still loom over the future of developing countries.

While this seems like a bleak reality for the majority of the world’s nations, perhaps social norms play only a small part in the success of a rising nation. For there’s another role to be played in this schoolhouse, a role that transcends traditional schoolyard games. As a relative newcomer in history, multinational corporations may be the answer to global discrimination—a new paradigm to counter the old. And that’s where we will leave off until Part 3 next week.

Merritt, Anna C., Daniel A. Effron, and Benoît Monin. “Moral self‐licensing: When being good frees us to be bad.” Social and personality psychology compass 4.5 (2010): 344-357.

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The Global Schoolhouse

Part 1 of 3: The Global Schoolhouse

Individual countries have always seemed like individual people to me. With their unique quirks, countries have all the idiosyncrasies of humans. They have distinct personalities, see themselves differently than outside observers, and judge their behavior based on intent while judging others based on action. Some countries are quiet, some loud, some big, some small, some fashionable, some plain (the comparisons continue).

To be clear, the collective “country” is distinct from the diverse collection of its citizens—the whole is different than the sum of its parts. That being said, countries are still like people, and what do all people want? Love and respect. Blatantly disrespect even the mousiest members of society and their blood will boil. Bullies are a product of overcompensation, self-image deficits, and lack of perceived respect. This universal need for respect helps explain much in global affairs.

As an obvious global bully, Russia simply wants the respect it feels it deserves. Seeing itself as a bastion of aerospace development, scientific research, military prowess, historical richness, Olympic champions, and cultural mainstays like art, ballet, and architecture, Russia may think, “We’re one of the greatest nations on earth. Why are we not given the relative level of respect that our status deserves? Let’s annex Crimea, then they’ll respect us!” Similar reasoning can be found in the seemingly antisocial behaviors of all sorts of global policies (not least, those of the United States). Self-centered, emotional, overly competitive, unaware, and simplistic—countries are not just like any people; they’re like school children.

There is one classroom that fits this metaphor well (although the teacher is nowhere to be found). The classroom is the G20—a group of the world’s twenty largest economies who get together to discuss global matters. Within “Classroom G,” as we’ll call it, there are all the features of a stereotypical schoolhouse. There are poorer kids, richer kids, extroverts, introverts, troublemakers, class clowns, slackers, bullies, brainiacs, and everyone in between. There are also social cliques (some even with labels).

Jocks, Preps, Nerds—these are unknown titles in Classroom G. Instead, the most well-known cliques go by other names (NATO, BRICS, G7, G4, and so on), but the most “popular” group is known historically as The Allies. The paradigm of World War I and II has continued for over 100 years and has evolved to roughly include an alliance between the world’s largest economies—the popular kids of the class (although, they are often not very popular with the rest of the students).

The in-group’s membership has changed many times throughout the decades. Where countries like Russia, China, Japan and Germany were once historical outsiders, they now have a seat at the table (but not officially in certain circles—the Group Seven or Permanent Five, for example).

There is an oversimplified explanation for this elite group of students: The trend-setting  group in Classroom G is a clique of develop-ed countries on the inside and develop-ing countries on the outside (with a few choice exceptions). Economics supersedes historical alliance. And as trite and ill-defined as the terms developing and developed may be, they serve as the arbitrary (but necessary) boundary in which our classroom creates a status quo.

It is important to point out, however, that Classroom G countries are not teachers, but peers. Their authority is social in nature, not hierarchical. Therefore, we could hypothesize that international relationships conform to the same social and psychologic theories that humans do…  But more on that next week.

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Uncategorized

America’s Best Obsession

Why do we always want the best? I had to get a toothbrush the other day. Before I left my house, I searched “best toothbrush.” It seemed like the sensible thing to do.

As I typed in the searchbox, the auto-fill completed the thought immediately. I wasn’t alone in my toothbrush purchase insecurity. A flurry of articles came up with conflicting opinions and, for a moment, I felt stupid.

Every toothbrush I bought on a hunch has been fine. I’ve never been disappointed in a toothbrush. Why waste my time trying to find the best? Have you ever run into someone with no teeth and asked, “What happened?”

And they replied, “Bought the wrong toothbrush. Should have done more research.”

—Aziz Ansari, Dangerously Delicious (2012)

 

America is obsessed with rankings. Every year high school students (and even more so their parents) pour over the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges list. We cheer on our favorite sports teams and concern ourselves with the recent movement in the standings. And most ubiquitously of all, we compare ourselves with those around us. Every. Single. Day. After all, this is the nation to originate the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses.”

Our love of rankings is fueled by what psychologist refer to as “extrinsic motivation”–our desire for external rewards like status, prestige, and validation. As a nation, America enjoys and celebrates (quite vocally) it’s status atop the global economic and military ladder. We share an unabashed feeling of national pride.

This is not necessarily negative. Although excessive arrogance has historically proven to be a poor strategy, external motivation can lift people beyond what they would have otherwise been able to accomplish. The bitter rivalry between Michelangelo and Da Vinci during the Renaissance elevated both artists to a level never before seen. It would be hard to achieve such greatness without the enhancing power of healthy competition. This competitive spirit is one of the primary “intangibles” that has led the recent boon of innovation and technologic progress in the United States. But what are the costs?

While researching for an upcoming book, I came across a 1999 study out of Murrary State University. Dr. Daniel Wann and his colleagues were attempting to uncover the motivations of athletes and sports fans. Their discussion on the difference between task oriented and ego oriented people proved the most illuminating.

A task oriented athlete is motivated to improve and master the sport—it’s the feeling of getting better that drives action. An ego oriented athlete, on the other hand,  is motivated by the desire to be better than others. “Better,” “Best,” “Worst”—these are words inherent in our ranking obsessed culture. We want to know how things stack up. What are the best movies of the year? The best restaurants? The best schools? Collectively, America is an ego oriented society. As stated before, there are benefits to this type of thinking, but we need to recognize the downsides.

Wann and company point out that both task oriented and ego oriented athletes can take a healthy approach to sports. Both groups can have high intrinsic motivation, feel competent, demonstrate high levels of enjoyment, and believe that their athletic success is the result of effort. That all sounds pretty good, right? But there’s one caveat (and this is important):

“These desirable behaviors and attributes are […] indicative of ego oriented persons, but only if they are confident in their ability […] If ego oriented persons doubt their ability, they are likely to choose easy or impossible tasks, have a low level of intrinsic motivation, feel incompetent at the task, have a lower level of enjoyment, and believe that athletic success is the result of ability.”

In other words, in a rank-obsessed society, confidence is key. Without confidence, individuals suffer from lack of self worth. They may see the game—be it sports, business, or life—as a challenge to be the “best,” but without enough confidence, their fixed mindset  locks them into a downward spiral.

This is the reality of American culture. On the one hand, it promotes healthy competition, innovation, and elevation of the output of its citizens. On the other, those who lack the confidence to rise to the challenge yet still ascribe to the “If you ain’t first, you’re last” Ricky Bobby philosophy, those citizens get left behind. They have less enjoyment in what they do, less motivation to do better, and all the while feel incompetent doing it. Perhaps we should all consider how important the “best” really is.

Wann, Daniel, Michael Schrader, and Anthony Wilsen. “Sport fan motivation: Questionnaire validation, comparisons by sport, and relationship to athletic motivation.” Journal of Sport Behavior 22.1 (1999): 114.

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