International ties

Challenge the perception of Sino-US relations

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-08-02 11:37
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The mere exposure effect basically states that the more we are exposed to something the more we come to like it. This applies equally to both objects and people.

One of the most famous American advertising campaigns was launched twenty years ago by Canon, the camera manufacturer. The ads, featuring tennis pro Andre Agassi and the trademark tagline "Image Is Everything" not only defined the Canon Rebel brand but also cemented in the public's mind the persona of Agassi as a rebel, a role and image he reviled, according to his 2009 autobiography, Open.

At about the same time Canon was persuading people that "Image is Everything," Rolling Stone magazine unveiled its "Perception is Reality" advertising campaign. The magazine was trying to change its image as a publication read mainly by downtrodden aging hippies and druggies.

Agassi was not truly a rebel despite his image and, contrary to perception, Rolling Stone's primary readers were upper income well-educated adults. But our surface perceptions often become our realities and, once we form our beliefs and opinions, they are very difficult to change.

The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan "fact tank" that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. One way it does that is by conducting public opinion polls. Two recent PEW polls reflecting perceptions about the US and China are instructive examples of how people can perceive and misperceive one another.

A December 2009 PEW poll of The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the American public revealed wide differences in the experts and lay persons view about China. CFR is an independent US nonpartisan membership organization comprised of high-level government officials, business executives, journalists, educators, students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens that wrestle with the foreign policy choices facing the US and other countries.

Only 21 percent of CFR members see China's emergence as a major threat, whereas 53 percent of the American public said China represents a major threat to the US.

So the experts at CFR believe one thing, but the American public has a different view.

The American public seems confused about China's economy with 44 percent of Americans saying that China is the world's leading economic power, it's not, and only 27 percent of Americans believe the US is the world's leading economic power, it is. Perhaps that is one reason that Americans feel threatened by China.

Chinese people have a much more positive view of the US According to a PEW 22-Nation Global Attitudes Survey published in June, over half, 58 percent, have a positive view of the US and over two-thirds of Chinese, 68 percent, consider the relationship between the two countries as one of cooperation.

Chinese leaders, however, may be less sanguine about relations between the two countries. According to Trudy Rubin, a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, few of China's top leaders have ever lived in the United States, grasp Washington politics, or understand the workings of America's civil society. This creates paranoia about US public or governmental attitudes towards China and such misperceptions are dangerous.

Rubin published her reflections in late July based upon a conference she had attended in Washington, titled "The US and China: Mutual Public Perceptions," co-sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute and the Center for US-China Relations at Tsinghua University.

Psychologists have pinpointed a phenomenon known as the mere exposure effect, which supports Rubin's suggestion that an antidote to our mutual misperceptions, distrusts and dislikes, would be more personal contact at the popular and governmental levels. The mere exposure effect basically states that the more we are exposed to something the more we come to like it. This applies equally to both objects and people.

Image may not be everything and perceptions may not be reality, but as exchanges between our two countries become more common, we are likely to develop more positive images and perceptions of one another.

Patrick Mattimore is a former psychology teacher and adjunct professor in the Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing. He is a fellow at the American-based Institute for Analytic Journalism.