An economist colleague called my attention to a fascinating article recently posted as an NBER Working Paper: Liu, Meng, and Wang, “Confucianism and Preferences: Evidence from Lab Experiments in Taiwan and China.” Abstract below; link to paper here.
ABSTRACT: This paper investigates how Confucianism affects individual decision making in Taiwan and in China. We found that Chinese subjects in our experiments became less accepting of Confucian values, such that they became significantly more risk loving, less loss averse, and more impatient after being primed with Confucianism, whereas Taiwanese subjects became significantly less present-based and were inclined to be more trustworthy after being primed by Confucianism. Combining the evidence from the incentivized laboratory experiments and subjective survey measures, we found evidence that Chinese subjects and Taiwanese subjects reacted differently to Confucianism.
The “priming” experiment method seems pretty interesting, though their conclusion doesn’t seem very surprising, given the recent history of China:
“Chinese subjects [i.e. in the PRC] who were primed for Confucianism were more likely to rank Confucianism lower and also tended to agree less with Confucian values than the control group did. We did not find this effect on the Taiwan subjects. Our study therefore suggests that Chinese and Taiwanese subjects have different reactions to Confucianism. Different historical events and experiences in the two places are a very likely explanation for these differences.” (p. 21)
Should we be more surprised by this? Or maybe the point is to provide empirical evidence for what we all more or less believed already.
When the same treatment or procedure gets opposite results in different groups, the most likely explanation is a defect in experimental design or conduct. This is particularly true when studying such highly subjective phenomena. Risk aversion, for example, is presumably determined by questionnaire and whether this bears any relation to actual behavior is uncertain at best.
Finally, to state what is known to all followers of this blog, China is a vast and diverse country and a single study is unlikely to be representative of the entire population. It is not possible to study “Chinese” but only specific sub-groups of Chinese which must be carefully defined.
Geoffrey Redmond MD
I agree with your second paragraph, but not your first. In particular: “When the same treatment or procedure gets opposite results in different groups, the most likely explanation is a defect in experimental design or conduct.” Without knowing anything else, this seems plainly false to me. One can generate a hypothesis of differing responses to the same experimental design quite easily and owing to any number of psychological variables. Culture is but one, but gender, age, religious affiliation, etc., can all lead one to predict different responses to the same stimuli.
Thanks for sharing, Steve. Here is another link for the paper, in case the other one doesn’t work: http://www.class.uh.edu/Faculty/emliu/confucius/confucian.pdf
I read through the study and found it fascinating. The two sets of subjects were from PKU and NTU (students were culled from Economics courses), so not exactly representative of the entire respective populations, but this is how social science often works. Although it may be questionable, it’s not unusual, and it still says something about the intellectual elite in each society.
The most interesting thing to me about the study is that it shows that PKU students react in an aversive way to the Confucian primes that were given, whereas NTU students react in a positive way to the primes. Manyul is not surprised by this. I guess I’m not surprised, either, but if you had asked me to guess ahead of time, I wouldn’t have guessed with much confidence. It is nice to see a study that tries to put some empirical traction to typical guesswork. (I tend to be a bit of a positivist.) I wonder, with the state sponsorship of Confucianism in China and the introduction of Confucianism into the curriculum there, whether the results will be different in ten or twenty years.
It is worth asking whether the results would be similar in other sectors of each society. Would Taiwanese who identify less with the KMT, for instance, also identify less with Confucianism? Would Chinese who have little formal education feel antipathy toward Confucianism? I remember riding a bike through the Henan countryside in the mid-Nineties–following the travels of Confucius–and when I mentioned what I was doing to any of the many curious people along the route, the most common reaction was, “孔子，聖人！“ with a big smile and a thumbs up. There certainly wasn’t any antipathy among the farmers and other rural people that I came across. But maybe they were just being polite.
What if I, a Chinaman, were riding my bike through Boston tracing the ride of Paul Revere and I mentioned to folks what I was doing, what should I deduce from their big smiles?
At any rate, treating people like lab rats is patronizing amounting to bigotry. Does the lab experiments in Taiwan and China have any philosophical or ethical interest?
I have no idea what the Revere reference is supposed to evoke. You might note that one researcher is affiliated with a PRC university, one with an ROC university, and one with a USA university. They are each, at least by name, Chinese.
Whether the experiments have philosophical or ethical interest is the open question at this point. I don’t believe the human subjects were subjected to pain or “disposal” as lab rats are typically treated; in all likelihood, they were compensated for their voluntary participation.
I also note that all three researchers are trained in economics with no accreditation in the field of Chinese Philosophy. What would their collective notion of Confucianism and Confucian values be? Is being Chinese a qualification of scholarly expertise on the teaching of Confucius? Just asking.
Just clarifying: Being Chinese doesn’t provide that kind of expertise. On the other hand, they can’t be accused of at least one kind of bigotry, viz. cultural bigotry. Also, I don’t think we have to rely on academic accreditation to take seriously someone’s understanding of Confucianism. We certainly don’t make that a habit on this blog, at least.
To build on Manyul’s remarks…
Chenping, you seem offended, but unjustifiably, I think.
Regarding an equivalent bike ride, I suppose it would have to be something like following the footsteps of Jesus through Palestine. And if rural people there gave you a smile, a thumbs-up, and exclaimed “saint!” when they heard the name “Jesus,” that might mean something (or maybe they would just be expressing politeness to a stranger).
Regarding the lab rats remark, I’m not sure what to make of that. Perhaps you aren’t familiar with similar research that is done all of the world and attempts to gauge people’s unconscious biases.
Regarding philosophical or ethical interest, yes, I think these kinds of studies are quite worthwhile. Imagine a question such as the following: is there such a thing as genuine altruism? Philosophers can debate back and forth whether it is possible for someone to act on someone’s behalf against one’s own interests, but social scientists can do studies and try to see if people actually do it. Of course, there are always caveats to such studies, but they do advance the conversation in their own way.
Regarding the training in Confucian philosophy, their methods are explicit. You can check them for yourself to see if they pass muster. Whether they have formal training is not the issue. In this interdisciplinary world, we should welcome this kind of cross-discipline work and even look for opportunities to cooperate.